The Cinema of Elections

The oddity of the 2016 election has confused pundits, politicians and the public alike. Blame, insofar as one can blame the present situation with all its complexity on any one group, has been laid at the feet of the media.  I mean not to challenge this generalisation, but rather to examine what the actual effect the ‘media’ has, and then how best to analyse it.

I start with how elections are consumed.  They are experienced via television and internet news and parody programs, and on a grand scale going far beyond the audience that can vote on November 8.  Domestic election news is carried by organisations in many other countries and territories, with reactions that range from giggles of schadenfreude, to genuine concern over the ripple effect of sudden policy shifts from the global hegemon.

I propose that the 2016 election is akin to an extended movie, since the primary method used to experience it is as a spectator.  Therefore, analysis using the tools of cinematic criticism is apt, and for the purposes of this exercise I have chosen to apply the arguments of Laura Mulvey from her celebrated essay Narrative Cinema and Visual Pleasure (1975).  The choice is not arbitrary, as modern feminist film theory was launched by this work, and in the 2016 election a feminist understanding of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is timely.  Especially with the recent release of a recording of Donald Trump bragging of his predatory sexual attitude towards women.

In Freudian sexuality theory, scopophilia (the pleasure of looking) and the inverse pleasure of being looked at is a component instinct of sexuality.  Simply put, pleasure is derived through taking people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling gaze.  Proof of this argument is simple: the proliferation of pornography, QED.  In her essay Mulvey argues that, “At the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.” While I do not propose that Trump’s only means of sexual satisfaction is from watching, he is close to the extreme end of perversion.

For example, he owns beauty pageants, and in this capacity satisfies the urge of the voyeur by going backstage when the contestants are preparing, subjecting them to his gaze which is absolutely controlling. He is the owner, they are the owned.  He said the following to radio shock jock Howard Stern:

“Well, I’ll tell you the funniest is that before a show, I’ll go backstage and everyone’s getting dressed, and everything else, and you know, no men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it,” Trump said. “You know, I’m inspecting because I want to make sure that everything is good.”
“You know, the dresses. ‘Is everyone okay?’ You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody okay?’ And you see these incredible looking women, and so, I sort of get away with things like that.”

If this is a  movie, or many cinematic variations occurring at the same time, Trump occupies the traditional space of the superior male in the 1970s (more evidence to support reading Mulvey of 1975).  He is the possessor of the infamous male gaze, which he deploys to reduce women to unconscious objects, rather than beings of power in their own right. He does this to all women, even his own daughter Ivanka is not immune, but is referred to voluptuous, a piece of ass (see here), someone Trump would like to date.  This is important because Ivanka is a person with policy ideas, she has pressured her father to advocate for support for mothers with young children. She has power that Trump recognises and ensures is either broken or bridled.

In the narrative structure of film, Mulvey argues that there is an active/passive heterosexual division of labour according to the principles of the ruling ideology. Woman is the image, man himself cannot bear the same burden of sexual objectification. This argument no longer holds true to the extent that it did in 1975, but as Trump is an anachronism, it applies to him.  And of course it does — Trump is objectively unattractive, worthy of the description Norman Mailer had for Paul Johnson in another time: “He looks like an explosion in a pubic hair factory.”

In the diegesis* of this election he is playing the traditional male role controlling the action (through his blunders that are focused on by the media) with Hillary reacting to it. That is an obstacle for Clinton, but it is surmountable.  Importantly, Hillary is not controllable by the male-gaze.  She is an older woman, dresses in suits, and the reductive energy of her opponents in using secondary sexual characteristics like her voice is essentially limited.

According to Freud’s castration anxiety theory, the objectifying gaze both reduces women to sexual objects, as well as reminding the male of the fear of castration. Women do not have penises, and a castrated man does not have the capacity for normal sexual pleasure. He is thus dis-empowered, and when the gaze defines women as lacking a penis, it dis-empowers them.  Now, this is obviously compete crap.  Women have the capacity for tremendous sexual pleasure, as anyone who has experienced or witnessed a female orgasm can attest.  But applying this psychic fear of castration to the potential of the first female US President, Hillary Clinton is not threatening to the patriarchal order in the same way.  She cannot be objectified.

So Trump’s attitude towards women is ineffective in demeaning Clinton.  However, in this time it is very effective at damaging Trump. So we see now the suicidal lurch of his campaign towards the ultimate climax of this movie, Clinton’s triumph and Trump’s concession.

The Trump campaign in this election is like a cinematic tour-de-force from the 1970s in competition with a blockbuster of today. The audience has changed, and nostalgia only gets the old boy so far.  Even a mediocre film like Batman v Superman succeeds at the box office with a big marketing budget. And the Clinton campaign is not lacking funds.

I expect much better criticisms to be written by wordsmiths around the world, and for criticisms of my own attempt here to appear in the comment section, or perhaps in private.  If I have made an error in analysis when it comes to applying the genius of Laura Mulvey, or reducing Freud to a few lines, I expect to be corrected.  With that, dear reader, I am done (for now).


*diegesis is a fancy term for film narrative

Sorry Abe, It might have perished from the Earth

Almost everyone who speaks English would recognise a phrase or two of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” He was speaking of the great cause beyond the end of slavery that underpinned the war, the survival of popular government.

That is what is meant (or what should be meant) by cries of freedom, or the cliched call to defend it — usually by supporting some policy to actively subvert it, like the Patriot Act. The curiously effective tactic of imbuing the tools of torture with the appearance of medicine is not what I aim to discuss right now, but the source of this tactic is the universal foe of genuine democracy. That is my focus, so let me explain.

If you ask someone who has studied economics in the last decade about economics they tend to say straight away that people are not rational. They want to make this clear because it used to be the ruling doctrine of economics, but as soon as you break that illusion the system of marketing and advertising, governments putting taxes on certain products, and the tendency for markets to be shocked by current events — it all becomes clear. People need to be coaxed by tits to buy things, they need government to make tobacco 300% more expensive before not buying the poison, and the President of the United States can trip and fall on camera and suddenly the stock market dives.

So economics is not rational, but what else is not? Well, the rationalist actor model still gets notice in the study of international politics despite it being bogus because it ignores the psychology of leaders and governments, and it fails to take into account the players that make-up the policy process (public/civil service, lobbyists, voters, legislators, judiciary). Where else is rationalism non-existent? The answer is before us; beneath a flop of fake hair.

Democracy itself is not rational. People in the media have been wondering aloud why the polls (the actually scientific ones) are not reflecting the outrage over Donald Trump’s scandals. He calls Mexican’s rapists and his poll numbers rise, he calls for women seeking abortion to be punished and his poll numbers rise, he insults the parents of a war veteran and  his poll numbers stay the same, he doesn’t pay tax for eighteen years and his poll numbers stay the same. He’s not winning, as most polls show Clinton with a five to seven point lead, but there is no fallout.

This is in contrast to the fact that according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll 67 percent of Americans think his tax dodging is selfish, and 61 percent think it is unpatriotic. So why isn’t this reflected in his support for president? Surely, if 67 percent of the voting public think poorly of him on the vital issue of the economy, that should translate to a drop in his overall poll numbers. Yet it doesn’t. Someone isn’t playing ball.

A rational understanding of the election process would say that candidates make their policy plans known, the voters decide on the basis of those plans, and the winner implements there policies to the advantage of the voters. A simple transaction. But it isn’t like that, and it either never has been or it hasn’t been for a very long time.

Princeton University published a study in 2014 which sought to answer the question: “Does the US government represent the people?” And the answer is no.  Well, no 70 percent of the time. They found that the least popular policies have the same 30 percent chance of being passed into law as the most popular — that is where 90 percent of Americans are concerned. The wealthy have a different rate of return (well of course). They have a much greater chance of seeing the policies they want enacted, and more importantly, near certainty that the policies they don’t like get defeated. The US is an oligarchy, plain and simple, and it makes no difference if the general public is rational or not.

Well, almost. You see, there is something the masses have which the masters do not. Mass. They are numerous, and when in revolutionary fury they are above the law. We saw it in Bucharest in 1989 when the Ceaușescu regime dissolved before a massive crowd who decided in a moment that their president before them was actually naked and all the Russian sponsored military might couldn’t make any difference. You can see that moment here by the way, it is really something to see.

To return to the point, the voters are not rational, their participation is required to give the oligarchy a veneer of legitimacy. So rational thinking is not required, which sounds deeply cynical and I suppose that it is, but I see a thread of possibility here. What if the forces of democratisation take back the ideas which have been stolen? Freedom, liberty, and pluralism, so that the great push back by the people can begin. It has happened before, the civil rights movement held America to the standard the founding fathers accidentally slipped in to their notes, that all men are created equal. There were hard fought gains, and those gains will not be given up. Now the great mass has the chance to claim back the most important three words in all of American literature: “We the people.”