On the debate stage this week, Hillary Clinton made a better case against Donald Trump’s claims of election “rigging” than 95% of her supporters. She used the word “pattern” and said that Trump called the FBI rigged, the Iowa and Wisconsin GOP primaries rigged, the court system rigged, and even the Emmys rigged. She might have also mentioned his deranged reaction to Obama’s 2012 re-election.
But it was a brilliant move by Clinton. While throwing in words to appease her base like “horrifying” and “troubling,” for the rest of us she denuded Trump’s “rigged” word of any power, basically saying here’s Chicken Little claiming the sky is falling again.
And then she threw it all away the next night by appearing at a roast with The Donald. Terrible move, Hill.
You see, Hillary, Trump’s supporters are a little like the Wallace Shawn character in The Princess Bride saying “inconceivable.” They don’t think that word means what you think it means. For them, “rigged” isn’t literally that the polling stations are being managed by Free Masons or whatever.
For them, “rigged” is more of a systemic, hyperbolic argument (as Trump and his supporters have been trying to claim since the debate). Or as Homer Simpson once put it, “you’re out of order, he’s out of order, this whole country’s out of order!” Elites have taken over the capital and the nation, and Trump is the one barbarian inside the gates who can expunge the sissy kings and queens.
I didn’t say the argument made sense. But you can see its appeal for people who wonder why their incomes haven’t increased in 40 years.
Or as Kurt Cobain said, quoting a lot of other people, “just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.”
Some of those media elites have taken clear comfort in the fact that the Paranoid Style in American Politics, as Richard Hofstadter called it, only goes so far. Trump’s ceiling hasn’t increased in the wake of a full week of the media’s “rigging” discussion.
But that’s not Trump’s only desired effect. If enough people throw up their hands and refuse to vote, or vote third-party, Trump still has a (narrow, and narrowing) path to victory.
Hillary adds to that effect when she attends a roast with the Donald. That’s the last thing she should want to go viral. There have already been far too many re-tweets of photos of her and Donald together at Bush-era functions. The message: “These elites yell at each other at debates, but deep down they’re all in on it together.”
To really explain why this is so problematic, I need to pivot to Trump for a minute.
In many ways, the debates revealed the limits of Trump’s reality distortion field. In case you haven’t heard, in 1981, at Apple Computers, Bud Tribble re-appropriated the term “reality distortion field” from “Star Trek” to explain the effect Steve Jobs had on investors and even other employees. Basically, if Jobs felt it was true, he could convince others it was true, even if it was demonstrably false. (It was even parodied in Dilbert!)
Jobs isn’t the first or the last CEO to try to exert a reality distortion field. This year, several people have noticed Trump doing it, like this writer. What separates Trump from other CEOs, and previous nominees for President, is his absolute belief that he can bend reality to his perception of it. Even Steve Jobs had to retrench when the NeXT stock price plunged.
For Trump, there is no NeXT time. If he just keeps saying that he opposed the Iraq War before it started, we’ll believe it. If he just keeps saying that “the blacks” and women have no better friend, we’ll believe it. If he keeps parroting loony alt-right theories about Sidney Blumenthal and Clinton’s menacing corruption, we’ll believe them. Standing at a debate and shouting “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” is meant to have something like the effect that Doctor Strange has on New York City starting around 1:37 in this trailer.
One of the short-term effects of this election, then, is to bring the Trump/alt-right reality distortion field face-to-face with, well, reality. Most of the Trump RDF can’t hold up to twitter or to sustained attention from America’s soccer moms. As Jobs’ closest competitors would say, the alt-right paradigm has been disrupted.
However, one of the longer-term effects of the election is likely to be a disruption of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s reality distortion field. One reason it’s harder to discern the Clinton RDF is that it isn’t as extreme as Trump’s; it doesn’t cater to extreme paranoia; it doesn’t look like the Doctor Strange trailer.
Also, the Clinton RDF is amiably supported by most of the mainstream media as well as most rich people that the Clintons would chance to meet. Their RDF says “both parties” instead of “both major parties.” Their RDF sees American politics as a Manichaean struggle of good versus evil expressed through Democrats versus Republicans. Their RDF believes that if it doesn’t happen on MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News, it didn’t happen. Their RDF believes in the gospel as preached by fivethirtyeight.com, which tells you that 51 seats will “control” the Senate even though anyone who’s been paying attention knows that 51 seats only controls introduction of legislation (through committee chairs); nothing can or will get passed unless and until one party controls 60 seats, because of the way the filibuster is now used.
I will bet you my mortgage that at some point Thursday morning, Hillary Clinton looked at the polls on fivethirtyeight.com. She felt comforted by a better-than-80% chance of winning a Presidency that people have already started voting for, comforted enough not to worry about attending a good-humored roast with the white-gloved hoi-polloi. And in the short term, she’s right; she will win.
But in the longer term, she demonstrated the limits of her reality distortion field. People really are fed up with the elites whom she so casually hobnobbed with. It won’t come up on MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News, because everyone who comes on those shows is there to support Clinton or Trump. If they gave equal time to Gary Johnson/Jill Stein supporters, it would. Thanks to this unforced error by Hillary, that will happen more often.
If Clinton keeps making errors like those, the former Goldwater girl could be heading toward an LBJ-like reckoning. In 1964, the very dangerous Goldwater lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson. Six months later, LBJ had become one of the least popular Presidents in memory. How did he, in less than a year, go from Chosen One to Chosen Bum?
As a broad summary, he over-read his mandate. He believed too much in his reality distortion field. And he wound up resigning before the next election.
The woman who delivered a deft deconstruction of “rigging” should shine a similarly bright light on her own assumptions.
I’m rooting for her. I’m voting for her. But I hope I’m getting more than what I’m seeing.