I’m not picking on Politico‘s Shane Goldmacher here but his pre-debate coverage reminds me why I recently quoted David Foster Wallace on post-modern irony: “All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists.”
Goldmacher isn’t resorting to sarcasm in this piece, but it’s definitely a form of analysis that takes cynicism at face value. So, for example, we learn that Donald Trump is making a major tactical mistake in failing to do debate prep because he’s missing the chance to nail down his choreography.
The choreography of televised town halls can pose a particular challenge. How close you stand to your opponent, whether you make sure they are in your camera shot, how you interact with voters and even how comfortable you look on a stool can make the difference between winning and losing in the eyes of the electorate.
No doubt there are consultants available who will teach you how to answer high-pressure spontaneous citizen-generated policy questions in front of a live global audience with the presidency on the line while simultaneously making sure to hit your marks on the stage and look comfortable on your stool.
Little details do matter on television, and the savvy will explain to you that Trump suffered in the first debate because he hasn’t “mastered the split screen,” meaning he looked bad while Clinton was talking. It’s true, if you slouch on your barstool, you come off as spineless. You should smile, people like that, but not too much or they’ll think you have a screw loose.
Look, I can by cynical, too. None of that could possibly matter compared to Trump losing his temper and calling Clinton the ‘c’ word. Whatever else Trump said in his speech in Henderson on Wednesday, it mattered less than him aggressively mispronouncing Ne-va-da.
But think about this. You can’t teach temperament and you can’t cure ignorance once it’s weaponized. It’s not really cynical to point out that Trump’s problems can’t be cured through stage direction.
I admit that it’s not easy to find the right balance. We might wish that debates were won or lost based on substantive answers rather than on zingers and gaffes, cleverly placed trap doors and the post-debate game, but that’s sadly not the case. Clinton and Kaine have won their debates by understanding that the totality of the challenge involves a lot more than what happens in the moment. Trump did poorly during the latter half of the first debate, but he wasn’t slaughtered until he entered the post-debate spin room, went home, and started tweeting in the wee hours of the morning. That, in combination with the performance of a very prepared Clinton team, turned a bad night into a catastrophic one.
Likewise, Tim Kaine won his debate by not much caring how much he was liked by the live audience and focusing instead on making Trump unacceptable, driving a wedge between his opponents, and getting Pence on record making more than a dozen easily debunked claims.
We might lament that public opinion is swayed this way, but noting it isn’t the same kind of surrender to cynicism that focusing on split-screens and posture represents. Trump didn’t lose because he made faces. He lost because he wasn’t prepared to answer the questions and he demonstrated a terrible temperament. Pence lost because he sacrificed the truth and his running mate on the altar of looking reasonable when what people think about his running mate is the most important variable in this campaign. If Kaine rudely interrupted him, I guess we could call that a Pyrrhic defeat.
Going back to Goldmacher’s initial observation, if you’re committed to the most thorough possible preparation and you have the bandwidth to handle stage direction in addition to all your briefing books, then you should absolutely take the time to learn where to walk and how close to stand to your opponent. If every little thing could matter and you have the ability to prepare for those things, then you should do it.
It’s called being prepared.
As an analyst, though, how much do we want to substitute our own subjective experience of the candidates’ non-verbal cues for our opinion on what they actually said?
This idea that Al Gore sighed too much or Kaine was too aggressive or Trump frowned too much, that’s all in the eye of the beholder. But whether or not Pence was right that Trump never said all the things he said? That’s something you can genuinely help the public understand.
It’s true that even though Trump is very experienced as an actor and excels on a stage, the Town Hall format is a new challenge for him. It’s news that he can’t be bothered to take instruction and advice on how to approach that challenge.
But, when the debate is over and the pundits start weighing in about who won and who lost, the last thing the public needs is a highly-trained political journalist’s opinion about where the candidates stood on the stage.
And, yet, as David Foster Wallace said:
The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.
In our environment, the paid political analyst is so afraid of being accused of sentimentality and overcredulity, of a “willingness to be suckered,” that they don’t seem willing to dare to look the public in the eye and tell them which candidate was full of shit.
More than that, they’ve so given in to the savvy and sophisticated “take” that they don’t insist that it should matter which candidate was full of shit.
So, instead, they tell the public what the public subjectively felt, which is the one thing they are definitely not authorized to know.