Adam Gopnik wields an elegant snark-scalpal in his assessment of Der Blödmann, the Dumbo frontrunner: "[He]... is absurdly unfit to be President of anything." And it gets worse thereafter for Der Blödmann. Gopnik doesn't think much of "House of Cards" on Netflix either. He mockingly refers to the lead characters in the TV show, Frank and Claire Underwood, as "Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth." Again, there is a vast gap between the stories we tell and the truths we know. If this is (fair & balanced) political commentary, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
The Stories We Tell About Politics
By Adam Gopnik
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Popular political entertainments can be a terrible guide to actual politics. Take “House of Cards,” Netflix’s wonderfully well acted and photographed tale of Frank and Claire Underwood, our modern Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth (played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright), whose rise to power, which includes throwing every ally metaphorically under the bus, and Kate Mara actually under a Washington Metro train, hold its addicts mesmerized. And yet, interestingly, the show is not at all astute about the actual political practices and exigencies of this moment; in fact, at moments it is horribly obtuse about them. In the show’s second season, for instance, Claire Underwood became the victim of leaked photographs showing her first in her photographer lover’s bed and then in his shower. The Underwoods’ sleazy communications guy fakes another shower picture, to show how easily it’s done, for the same tabloid, and pressure is secretly brought to bear on the photographer. “There will be a little cleanup,” the communications guy says. “But we’re over the hump, I’d say.” In the real world, that tabloid would be the last place such a “scandal” would likely end. There would be deep technical analyses of the photo all over the Web—Photoshopped or not?—while #ClaireInTheShower would become a hashtag, a meme, and an appropriate subject for feminist analysis and indignation: Why is a woman taking a shower being shamed? Although something like this might have happened in 1992, it has nothing at all to do with the political life of images in 2016.
One mentions this not to knock this immensely entertaining series but to point out something more relevant: the space that still persists between our political life and the tales we tell about it. We tell many stories that are satisfying but untrue. We particularly like sinister stories, when stupid stories are more to the point. Indeed, we tend to look so hard for the sinister that we miss the obvious, even when the obvious is the most obvious thing about the obvious.
This year, for instance, the story is oft told that the entire country is angry: enraged at politics and politicians alike, and moved by economic insecurity toward characters like Donald Trump. Good evidence to show this is much scanter than one might think judged by how often you hear it; President Obama’s approval ratings are at least as high as Ronald Reagan’s were at the end of his Presidency, and he is wildly popular within his own party, still the largest political grouping in the country. Economic insecurity is certainly part of the story, though if that alone were driving the insurgency, one would expect to see it distributed fairly evenly among the economically insecure. But if Trump is popular with working-class whites he is disliked, if not despised, by working-class blacks or Hispanics. The parallel notion that the Bernie Sanders kind of angry voters might become Trump voters seems like a pipe dream; the two types of indignation are not transmutable. All of this suggests strongly that ideology, nationalism, culture, ethnic identity, and racial fear, if not paranoia, are the major movers in this strange time. The notion that the Republican Congress could have turned the tide of hate mid-wave had they only taken up a few sane, moderate economic measures seems quite unreal.
The other story that we tell too often is one of assumed normalcy; we can live with sinister intrigue, but triumphant stupidity is intolerable. It is blatantly obvious that Donald Trump is absurdly unfit to be President of anything. The only things even remotely to his credit are building a skating rink and hosting a reality show. This truth is known to all, right and left alike, and many on the right have said so with admirable bluntness.
Yet one already sees signs of a softening, making room for a story of Trump’s “growth”—based perhaps on the notion that, were the Republican Party actually to nominate him, it couldn’t possibly be as stupid a move as it seems. The bar for Trump to show himself as something other than the oafish, ignorant liar and narcissist everyone has always known him to be is now set incredibly low. And even then, he can’t quite get himself over that bar. Bob Woodward wrings his hands in the hope of finding Trump “thoughtful.” If Trump showed the least sign of something recognizably thoughtful, he would probably instantly, with a sigh of relief, be credited with having ascended to a new level of maturity.
What makes the stories we tell lag behind the truths we know is perhaps simply that, being in the midst of it, we vastly underestimate the scale of the political transformation that we have passed through in the past eight years. The Obama era marks a much bigger transformation in American life than its sometimes disappointed supporters credit it with. The hierarchy of peoples—of all races and orientations, genders and gender identifications—is genuinely different, on the Supreme Court, in the Cabinet, in the White House, on streets and campuses. That the leader of this revolution would be a poised and eloquent man of conciliatory impulses is not surprising; that is what revolutions are like in liberal democracies. (Lincoln, who led another, could be even quieter and, on the rhetorical surface, at least, though not on the battlefield, even more conciliatory.) At times, the alteration is less present in the actual distribution of power than in expectations about how the world should be ordered. Those who are in favor of this revolution think it has proceeded much too slowly; those who are frightened think it has gone too fast. Those for it say that not enough has happened; those against it complain that all is lost. But something big has happened. Its tale just lags a little behind.
That the people who might be considered most likely to benefit from change would feel impatient and unsatisfied with its progress is predictable, just as it is that the people who feel displaced would become frightened. What we have is a classic example of rising expectations producing a revolutionary tone, if not revolutionary acts—and the companion truth that every political revolution of note, including peaceful ones, provokes a reaction of similar size. Indeed, if it were not the case that the only thing worse than a pundit who draws on facile parallels with popular entertainment is the one who says that you can find it all in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, the right thing to say here would be that you can find this all in Tocqueville. Because, in truth, you can. As he pointed out, powerful social change doesn’t produce a placated populace; it produces rising expectations that demand more social change. Meanwhile, vivid reactionaries are created by rapid panic more often than by the press of slower historical forces. Our politics have altered so much that the stories we tell about them can’t keep up. The normal house of political cards got knocked down a while ago. Now it needs to be rebuilt. If the story ends well, this might almost be an encouraging thought. Ω
[In 1986, Adam Gopnik began his long professional association with The New Yorker with a piece that would show his future range, a consideration of connections among baseball, childhood, and Renaissance art. He has written for four editors at the magazine: William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Gopnik, born in Philadelphia, lived his early life in Montreal and received a BA (art history) from McGill University. Later, he received an MA (art history) from New York University. In 2011, Adam Gopnik was chosen as the noted speaker for the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Massey Lectures where he delivered five lectures across five Canadian cities that make up his book Winter: Five Windows on the Season (2011). More recently, Gopnik has written The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (2012). In 2013, McGill University awarded a DLItt ( honoris causa) to Adam Gopnik.]
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