In times like these, propaganda isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. “A kind of bad but useful business,” as critic Robert Hughes once described the foulness of the unregulated international art market. But he might as well have been talking about the recent war of political propaganda and how the recklessness of the Democrats’ symbols — their ads, their messaging, their hashtags, their partisan publications and their unofficial celebrity spokespeople — helped deal a potentially fatal blow to their own party.
While there are plenty of red herrings to obsess over, and while criticisms of Donald Trump are certainly valid, let's just be frank and admit the Democrats ran a sloppy, incoherent campaign that cost them a lot. But that’s for the Establishment Left to sort out and come to terms with as they hopefully fill the party with young, new blood. I’d rather discuss how the celebrities and fictional characters who stumped for Hillary, even unofficially, helped sink the ship faster.
During the campaign, the vote-shaming social media blitzes and testimonials we were bombarded with by Hillary’s celebrifriends seemed grating and tacky. Now their smugness is tangible evidence of a larger problem within the Democratic Party: Its image is controlled and marketed by a very narrow group of corporate interests, tech libertarians and affluent celebrities. A few years ago we'd have called them the 1 percent. The actual Democratic establishment’s agenda has often felt too absurd to articulate, so the party has chosen no identity over a bad one. So of course they had a marketing problem.
While this sort of criticism has been a common refrain of the Dirtbag Left (which, incidentally, is a misnomer because the left's real dirtbags are over here), West Coast pop culture websites and politicos have been pretty mum on the subject, happy to let this bad business go on, because of course it's good for business when half the country is having a collective anxiety attack.
This year will be remembered for its toxic fluff. Provocateurs and dime-store Howard Beales such as Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Lena Dunham and Andy Richter have demonstrated zero political efficacy. If anything, we'll never know how much their smugness ostracized potential allies and inflamed the opposition’s base. No one — even the undereducated and marginalized — enjoys being condescended to. And yet, part of the Democratic strategy was to talk down to the citizens of America or to shame them into not voting for Trump. This sort of satire was arguably successful earlier in Jon Stewart's run on The Daily Show, but it was fresh at the time. It had teeth and seemed to matter. But that formula has been rinsed.
The approach needs to change because it no longer works. It wasn't clever enough and it underestimated the opposition. Even after taking a gut-wrenching loss on Nov. 8, many outlets and rogue social media celebrities have doubled down on their coverage of pop culture/reality crossover content, whimsical post mortems and open letters.
The most damning of these unintentionally hilarious postelection missives is this obituary of HRC’s political career, published by Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter, in which Hillary is described as an infallible deity and no mere corporeal form but, instead, “light itself.” That’s not all. The first graph ends with, “She will be the finest world leader our galaxy has ever seen.” But this isn't Clickhole. It's the marrow of liberal confusion and hysteria.
The fictional Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation wrote a bewildering open letter (is there any other kind) the day after the election in which she pulled out some PG invective, calling Trump “a giant fart monster.” That’s a perfect example of the type of doughy, undercooked humor Parks and Rec coasted on for more than half a decade.
And that sort of fictional ideology trickles down to cloud the thoughts of actual people, such as New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum, who then float inscrutable nonsense like this (note that this tweet was later deleted):
And there's the well-intentioned-but-tough-to-swallow cadre of humor-news talking heads such as John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah and Seth Meyers. At best these spicy take-makers help blur the lines between fiction-as-news-as-entertainment. At worst they're radicalizing independents against their cause. All the rage in the world somehow cannot be converted to political action by the Evisceratti (even though it’s so common on the right). The Evisceratti love to paint right-wingers as racist, home-schooled, evangelical idiots — meanwhile, these are the guys who seem fairly capable of effectively mobilizing, organizing and putting aside beefs (remember how for the last 18 months the Republican Party was one splinter away from shattering entirely?) to achieve a group goal. You know, democracy.
Unfortunately, many celebrities on the left still think pop culture is one of our most important battlegrounds, but that’s only viable if you go in with a plan. Who cares if “Post-Election Pain Is Good, At Least for Art?” Imagine all the bad last-minute Trump art that will be at Basel next week.
I can’t in good conscience sit back and pin it all on Hillary and her basket of incompetent strategists and celebrifriends. There is a very tacky precedent upheld by our lame-duck president, the one who branded himself as some sort of populist but who ultimately turned out to be an ineffectual puppet of corporate America. The president who gives daps to Ellen and Kendrick and uses the White House’s resources to release Spotify playlists, go on alt-comedy podcasts or compile listicles of “mind-expanding films and TV shows” so his legacy of cool will outshine Bill Clinton’s.
Yanis Varoufakis pierces through the fog of denial in his ruthless but necessary take on Obama’s eight years: “[Obama] was never a progressive. The problem for Obama was that all the left-wingers projected onto him the image they wanted to see, which was different to who he really was. He is a social climber, who wanted to become a member of the establishment, rather than to challenge it. His efforts to ingratiate himself have led to him handing over the presidency to Trump.”
The Left has been living in a cloud of self-congratulation for too long to remember. Will this be the wake-up call, the bottoming out to actually embrace progressivism? Or is it the more likely outcome that the Democrats move to the center?
Eh, but why ask the tough questions when you can mourn via pop culture mashup? What a time to be alive.