I recently read Susan Bordo’s excellent book, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. Bordo provides a clear narrative of the events leading up to the 2016 US presidential election; it offers a complex and personal answer to the question: What happened? The book is erudite (as befits a well-published academician), well-sourced, and accessible. Bordo concludes is that no single factor contributed to the demise of a woman who was arguably the most qualified presidential candidate in modern US history. The book was a balm for my soul and my ego. Among the many assertions Bordo makes, I took particular solace in the following:
As political campaigns have become more and more like the theater, reporters have begun to adopt the role of theater critics rather than investigative journalists. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t very good at discerning what literature professors call ‘unreliable narrators.’ (129-130)
I found this particular passage so very gratifying. I have long known that studying literature, or culture of any type, prepares one for a lifetime of critical thinking. But Bordo states that here with such pith that I was fairly bowled over. Being able to consider “unreliable narrators”—and a host of other methodologies used in humanities inquiry—has led me directly not only to the enjoyment of literature great and not-so-great, but also to the understanding of truths such as climate change. It is precisely that kind of inquiry that made me understand that whatever we have heard between November 9, 2016 and today about the US presidential election is simply not the whole truth. However, this type of inquiry has also taught me is that the search for the whole truth can be part of the very mechanism by which we become enslaved to lies.
Right now, in the name of “truth,” the liberal faction of the US media are taking Trump to task. It makes for riveting and entertaining television. I did not expect that I would be pulled away from binge-watching the latest Netflix or Amazon release to tune into MSNBC nearly every night. The network spectacle is fascinating; I particularly love the way they use Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” as part of their own advertising. I’m not sure it will legitimize the network in the eyes of Radiohead fans, who can be a pretty cynical bunch, but it made me smile and think of irony.
I have not had cable TV since 2013 or so, and I have been impressed by MSNBC this summer. It has been gratifying to hear the type of resistance I have been feeling for years being voiced in the national media. But then I read Bordo’s book. In a nutshell, she makes an excellent case for the ways in which the liberal media in the US (including but not limited to MSNBC) fueled the rhetoric and ideology that led to Clinton’s demise. In short, MSNBC and others colluded by digging into any detail that fit into what Bordo calls “optical illusions like ‘Untrustworthy Hillary’” and failing utterly to question the other optical illusion: “Straight-shooter Trump.” I am not going to summarize Bordo’s thoughts on each pundit. [To my students, I would say: You have to read the book!] I will say that Bordo compellingly argues for the ways in which Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, and particularly Chuck Todd were unwilling dupes in the larger catastrophe of November 8, 2016. Suffice to say that since reading The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, I have been pretty pissed off at most of MSNBC’s evening line-up. But Bordo goes fairly easy on Rachel Maddow. I was not watching TRMS when the optical illusions of “untrustworthy Hillary” and “Straight-shooter” were in full play, so I only have Bardo’s word that Rachel was, if not blameless, then at least somewhat less culpable than her colleagues in creating, even unwittingly, those illusions. Now, after reading Bordo’s book, I sometimes skip the rest of the pundits, but I still make an active attempt to watch TRMS every night because I have fallen head-over-heels in geek-love with Rachel Maddow.
But Rachel has me worried. Don’t get me wrong, as with President Obama, it does my soul good to simply see something like the world I live in represented on the main stage. As a fifty-two year old lesbian who has been out since the 1980s, I am thrilled when Rachel currently reigns as MSNBC’s number-one talent. I even feel a muted sense of accomplishment.
But Rachel does have me worried: not because of what she is saying, because she is almost always fascinating. I understand that her style of burying the lede does not play well with her critics, but I love the sense of drama she develops every night. I appreciate her tenacious digging into the details Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russian attack(s) on the US presidential election. Her wonky-breezy and detail-oriented persona strikes me as authentic, and that is saying something because I possess Jedi-level bullshit detection skills.
I am worried: all week, Trump has been allowed to terrorize who knows how many people in the US and northern Asia with his ridiculous talk about nuclear war and North Korea. And all week, TRMS and MSNBC more generally has done a great job of bringing in one expert after another to reassure us of the truth: nothing has significantly changed in North Korea and the President is clearly out-of-bounds on this. He is ill-informed, idiotic even. The pundits now refer to “adults” in the Whitehouse (as opposed to infant Trump) with a shameless glee that I share.
But I am worried: Mueller is following the money trail. This is good. Money trails have a better-than-average record of leading to somewhere very bad for people like Trump and his ilk. Following the money will lead to indictments, and perhaps even impeachments and resignations. This would be good. Certain truths will out.
But I am worried: Some journalists [and most MSNBC show hosts] are indeed “calling for the revival of old-style investigative journalism.” And they are indeed turning over every stone in their attempts to find the truth behind Trump’s lies, obfuscations, exaggerations, and bluster. This is admirable work, and as I said, it is very entertaining.
I am worried : Bordo writes of optical illusions that destroyed Hillary Clinton. And Hillary Clinton has been well-and-truly destroyed. But regardless of the sounds of opposition, defiant glee, and steadfast resistance to all things Trump, a new optical illusion is being created and reinscribed over and over on the newly-resistant American psyche with the uncredited assistance of the liberal media. And the pundits, once again, are not doing enough to call attention to the illusion and the process by which it is being created.
This optical illusion is more dangerous than all the lies, scams, and flim-flammery that the journalists with new-found courage have been covering and uncovering. And while everyone in the MSNBC evening line-up has offered us tree after tree of beautiful and satisfying truth, they have failed to consider the optical illusion that is the forest:
Donald Trump is not now, nor has he ever been, the legitimate President of the United States.
This is the patent untruth that worries me above all. We need to be reminded of this untruth at every opportunity. We need MSNBC to stop talking to experts in foreign policy and constitutional law. We need Rachel and her colleagues to start talking to the experts in ideology, the construction of truths, and the deconstruction of truths. In short, we need them to start hosting a bunch of culture-war-weary and battle hardened English professors.