By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)
The French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote a book in 1991 entitled The Gulf War did not Take Place .
In the same way, the 2016 presidential election did not take place.
Baudrillard did not mean to say, of course, that no war was prosecuted by the US and its allies, positioned in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, against the Iraqi occupation army in Kuwait, eventuating in the expulsion of the Iraqi tank corps.
He did think that for Western audiences, the war was a staged television conflict, an imitation of reality or simulacrum–a phony copy of reality. The weeks of US bombing of Iraqi lines that kicked off the war beginning in mid-January left behind black carbon dust. Iraqi soldiers, many of them poor Shiite conscripts, might have wanted to surrender. But they weren’t allowed to raise a white flag to the F-16s pulverizing them from 30,000 feet. That isn’t a war, that is shooting fish in a barrel. When the land war did begin, it was clear that the war directors connived at having the handful of Egyptian troops drive into Kuwait City first, for the cameras, so that Kuwait was liberated by the Arab League, not by 600,000 Western troops.
In some ways Baudrillard’s point goes back to an insight of the early twentieth century Belgian painter, René Magritte, who adhered to the surrealist school. His 1928-29 painting, “The Treachery of Images” shows a pipe, but then underneath it Magritte wrote in French, “This is not a pipe.” Of course it is not a pipe. It is just an imaginary copy of a pipe. It now hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
If the Gulf War was a television spectacle, the 2016 election is much more of one, with the added phony copies of reality flying around on social media. Not only did the election not take place, Donald Trump did not run. He has virtually no campaign machine, few functioning district offices. He holds rallies, which are dutifully televised by the cable “news” networks– they actually just turn their airtime over to him on a regular basis (while not doing any such thing for Hillary Clinton). His campaign is his staged rallies, which then are piped out to millions gratis. Trump is given free airtime because he is a creature of television, a reality show star, famous for being famous (i.e. for no particular reason; lots of real estate magnates are not famous, e.g.) He is given air time because viewership rises when he is on tv, and networks can charge advertisers more if they have more viewers.
Trump, in other words, functions for cable news in the same way as the ghostly Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 did for CNN in particular. Apparently hundreds of thousands of Americans were riveted by 6 months of rank speculation as to whether the airliner had landed in Tibet’s Shangrila or been kidnapped by Vladimir Putin’s air force. We are told that
“From 10pm-12am, [CNN’s] All Business: The Essential Donald Trump ranked #1 among adults 25-54 with 448k, beating the combined delivery of Fox News and MSNBC. Fox News averaged 193k. MSNBC trailed with 101k.
Let’s repeat that. A quick and dirty basic cable documentary on Trump outdrew both Fox and MSNBC live magazine news shows among the target demographic (the elderly, from a marketing point of view, do not actually exist). The non-Trump, the copy of Trump over at CNN, overshadowed Greta van Susteren and Lawrence O’Donnell’s news shows, which faded into unreality in comparison. Van Susteren demonstrated her own inability to grasp reality when she doubted that Fox poobah Roger Ailes had been a serial sex harasser; but then as reality sank in, she began to flicker and after a while, when she had accepted the non-televised non-Fox reality, she could no longer be found on the airwaves herself. Not only is there no election, but those who acknowledge the hard facts obscured by the 24 hour “news cycle” also come not to exist.
Did the press demand that Trump, the oldest person ever to have the prospect of taking office as president for a first term, reveal his physician’s health report?
Trump has an eccentric doctor write up a very brief one-pager, and then Trump shows it to Dr. Oz, Oprah’s physician, on afternoon television. Done. The health report is “public” because televised. No matter that it was a skeleton report, and raised questions about weight and cholesterol. There was no real health report of the sort the reporters had in mind, and which past candidates had released. There was only a phony copy of such a report in the form of a t.v. broadcast with a t.v. quack, half of whose statements about medicine and treatment appear to be ungrounded in reality.
As with a scripted reality show, Trump creates and keeps tension in his story line. His character is the grumpy anti-immigrant who shouts, “You furriners get off my lawn!” But if he does that consistently there is no tension. So in late August he asked the audience at a “town hall” (a phony t.v. town hall) whether he should “soften” his stance. He created a frenzy. Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter, bit players in the reality show, are stricken, in tears, angry and betrayed. Donald, you were our great white hope– how could you do this to us. Serious journalists were made to sit in televised roundtables (phony t.v. substitutes for actual reportage) and discuss ad nauseam whether Trump was “softening.” Or the serious journalists were switched out for campaign “surrogates” like Corey Lewandowski, hired by CNN to parrot Trump even though he was still on Trump’s payroll. Cable news journalism made its own journalism disappear. “This is not a journalist,” the ticker underneath should read.
Then the scripted reality character grumpy Trump comes out and gives a fiery speech denouncing immigrants, resolving the tension he had artificially created.
The one-week “softening crisis” never actually took place. There was no softening. Just as there is no election.
The unreality of the election is easily demonstrated. The controversies broadcast both on television and radio and on social media do not refer back to any verified, reasoned facts. More dramatic tension was introduced just yesterday when the Trump campaign (which doesn’t really exist) announced that Barack Obama was not actually born in Kenya. But the star, Trump, is sulking and won’t say that, won’t allow the concrete reality of the hospital in Hawaii in 1961 to seep into the televised rally, the holodeck of Trump’s spaceship.
The controversies are not about farm policy or who will be appointed to the Treasury, as in the actual elections of the past. They are over whether Hillary Clinton has a brain tumor, or whether her cough indicates she might expire any moment, like Monty Python’s parrot (which the pet shop owner insisted was alive, insofar as it was only a television simulacrum of a parrot, sort of like Magritte’s non-pipe).
The controversies are over whether Trump is a Manchurian candidate being run by Russian President Vladimir Putin or whether Hillary Clinton deliberately endangered national security with classified emails (not marked classified) that would inevitably fall into Putin’s hands.
The figure of Putin as the eminence grise of the non-election underscores its unreality, since Putin has nothing to do with the “election.” Aside from a few ineffectual sanctions over Crimea (increasingly resisted by the Europeans), the Washington power elite has acquiesced in eastern Ukraine as a Russian sphere of influence, and increasingly in Syria as a Russian sphere of influence. Trump and Clinton may talk a different game around these realities, but neither of them is likely to depart dramatically from Obama’s current course. Putin is irrelevant to domestic politics But in the un-election of 2016, he is elevated to a spectral presence standing behind everything from Trump’s hotel deals to Clinton’s fiendish email ploy.
Likewise with climate change, which Trump and most of the Republicans insist is a mirage, just as the pet store owner insists that the parrot is alive. Although Hillary Clinton says she believes in the reality of climate change, she has given no indication at all of wanting to move dramatically to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. When she gave conditions under which she would now not support fracking, she did not bring up its CO2 emissions! She seemed to want localities to make the decision (but many Red states are forbidding localities to make the decision). Hydraulic fracturing is the single biggest threat to climate change amelioration, but that doesn’t cause her simply to call for it to be banned. What is the difference between denying that human beings are altering the climate with their emissions and acknowledging it but doing nothing significant about it?
In short, friends, this is not a pipe. As for the parrot, it “is no more”, “has ceased to be”, is “bereft of life”, and “this is an ex-parrot.”