FOR more than a year, Donald Trump has been a “birther”, promulgating the theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States of America and, accordingly, is not and should never have been president of the US. But, last week, he saw the light and announced that he accepts Barack Obama was born in America. No evidence proferred for his prior belief. No evidence proffered for his new, completely opposed belief. There ya go. Whatever. Oh, and by the way, the whole birther thing (he claimed) was started by Hillary Clinton in the first place.
Imagine if Micheál Martin, as a potential contender to be taoiseach, were to spend more than a year promulgating the theory that Australia didn’t exist, only to decide, late in the day, that it did. Indubitably, some people would prefer if Australia didn’t exist, but it does, and Micheál Martin, had he espoused such a crazy belief, would long ago have been taken aside by his party and told to go boil his head. In the aftermath of his acknowledgement of the reality of Oz, had he then claimed Enda Kenny started the rumours of its absence, he’d have been disowned and politically buried by his own.
None of this happened to Donald Trump, because the Republicans are powerless in the phase of the phenomenon that is The Donald. He has lied on this and a rake of other matters since he announced his candidacy, been repeatedly and publicly proven to have lied, but despite this pattern, his approval ratings have at no stage been dented. Indeed, as The Economist put it last week: “His brazenness is not punished but taken as evidence of his willingness to stand up to elite power.”
Trump personifies the contradictory idea of “authenticity”. Authenticity, in politics, doesn’t require the politician to tell the truth. Contrariwise. Political authenticity measures the politician’s capacity to “tell it like it is”. Paradoxically, “telling it like it is” doesn’t have anything to do with telling the truth. It has to do with impulsivity, where the politician is willing to react to anything presented to them by a hack, whether or no the politician is informed about the issue. It has to do with unanchored opinion, so any politician who follows the social media tradition of instant and preferably abusive condemnation is seen as a straight talker. It resides determinedly in the “Un-PC” department, presenting as courage the willingness to speak ill of or incite hatred of other races, religions or genders.
Media loves political “authenticity” because the authentics give good headlines and allow the journalists to go running off to get the “Oh, no, we don’t” line from anyone who will disagree. Even the earnest fact-checkers are kept busy by people like Trump. Months ago , the presidential candidate announced that he had sent a team of investigators to Hawaii and proclaimed that the TV interviewer hanging on his words at the time wouldn’t believe what they were finding. This was not a lie. He never sent them, so it would be extremely difficult to believe what they didn’t find. There ya go. Whatever.
One of the advantage the new “authentics” have is that they typically, speak in pictures and slogans. Easy to like. Easy to re-tweet. Easy for trending. Easy for mainstream media to pick up, because when does mainstream media ignore a Twitter trend?
Trump’s productive picture/slogan outputs include his promise to build a wall to separate the US from Mexico and send the bill for the construction to Mexico. The listeners can imagine the wall and snigger at the idea of the arriving invoice. Trump’s opponents say that without Mexicans, his business couldn’t survive, and that much of America depends on underpaid illegal aliens. They further say a wall is not possible. (Interestingly, they never mention the horrors of the Berlin Wall, the fall of which was celebrated as a major step forward on the onward march of democracy.) They say the Mexican president would set a match to the bill, were the bill to be sent. They’re obviously right. All right-thinking people say so.
And yet. And yet millions of Trump supporters have not a problem in the world disregarding the facts and hugging the impossibility to themselves. Whenever Trump himself is faced with something he cannot disprove, he simply goes though a characteristic sequence — dismissive hand gesture accompanied by half-sentence of contemptuous dismissal. There ya go. Whatever. His crowds love it. The polls rise. And so far, neither the fact checkers nor the commentators nor Hillary Clinton has laid a glove on him.
Which goes back to the authenticity thing. Donald Trump is not authentic, unless you hang a clothesline of quotation marks around the term. But he is seen by his supporters to be authentic.
Hillary Clinton is not authentic, either. The difference is that her supporters have a harder time believing in her. That’s partly because, whereas Trump taps into the undertow of racism and rage in middle aged white males whose lives are not going well for them, Hillary’s message is an inchoate aspirational reference to the beliefs of decent people enlivened with the occasional complete obscurity, like her recent attack on the Alt Right. The only time she ever came out and attacked Trump’s side, by saying half of his followers are “deplorables”, she promptly took it back and apologised, which made no sense at all. Those of his followers who are racist, sexist, arms-toting and convinced that every Muslim is the embodiment of evil are deplorable.
The central problem is that Hillary Clinton does not project who she is, but who she believes she should be. Take the pneumonia. Her doctor says “You have pneumonia. It’s deadly for people in their 60s. Go to bed and rest.” That could not sit with the projected Hillary Clinton, who’s healthy and resolute (particularly resolute when she’s barking up the wrong tree). So instead of giving good example to her peers, she goes to a public event. Her hair is manky and unkempt, her pallor extreme. She stays resolute for far too long and is filmed fainting as she gets into her vehicle. Any good PR person would, at that point, have told her to get into bed and put out a statement acknowledging that’s where she should have been in the first place.
Instead, a statement goes out describing her in boiler terms (she “overheated”). A couple of hours after she had distracted from the anniversary of 9/11, the terrorist atrocity that brought Manhattan to its knees, she appears in the middle of Manhattan, beaming and inviting media to share her delight at the glorious New York day that’s in it. This woman has a tin ear.
For the first time in the campaign, Democrats are facing down the barrel of the defeat of their candidate at the hands of a patently incompetent liar. And experiencing that cramping fear that the experienced reality TV star will make bits of Hillary in the TV debates.