Fifteen Years Ago, Joan Didion’s Political Fictions Predicted the Rise of Donald Trump

Politics Features Joan Didion
Fifteen Years Ago, Joan Didion’s Political Fictions Predicted the Rise of Donald Trump

Joan Didion is good with words. She’s good at writing them, of course, and she’s good at parsing them. This made Didion, America’s preeminent essayist, literary celebrity, and cultural critic, an ideal but surprising chronicler of the complex and often farcical machinations of American politics, which so often find themselves contingent upon platitudes rather than policy, rhetoric rather than ideas. Didion, by the latter part of the 20th century, had not so much delved into the political cesspool as tacitly observed it. Then, in 1988, Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books asked Didion to cover that year’s presidential election, which pitted George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis; with Bush capitalizing on Ronald Reagan’s popularity, Dukakis was pilloried by his more experienced opponent.

Thus began Didion’s short but illustrious turn towards political journalism in the 1990s, a time when the heretofore-demarcated lines between politics and celebrity, journalism and muckraking, fact and punditry, had begun to splinter. In September of 2001, just a week after the 9/11 attacks, Didion released a collection of her political musings, titled Political Fictions. It has now been fifteen years, exactly, since the book was published, and though it’s become subsidiary in the Didion Pantheon to her other, more acclaimed works, Political Fictions is worth revisiting, not least because, in her incisive prose, Didion crafts a still-relevant book-length prosecution of “the nation’s permanent professional political class.” A decade-and-a-half later, Political Fictions seems like a sort of harbinger for the political landscape in 2016, an occult reflection of the ways in which our politics, and those of 1998, are firmly enmeshed in the stories and narratives we tell ourselves and are told by others.

In Fictions, Didion explores and excoriates a number of topics and political figures, among them Bill and Hillary Clinton, the 1992 Republican National Convention, Kenneth Starr, Bob Woodward, Newt Gingrich, the paradoxical limits of “compassionate conservatism” and, finally, Ronald Reagan. Didion, in the book’s foreword, is humble and transparent about her own novice status as political reporter, going as far to say that the people with whom she spent time with were not political aspirants but people who “hung out in gas stations.” She continues, “they had not gone to Yale or Swarthmore or Depauw, nor had they even applied. They had gotten drafted, gone through basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them, had begun what they called the first night of the rest of their lives with a magnificent drive to Carson City and a five-dollar ceremony performed by a justice of the peace still in his pajamas.” With Californian ease, and a sinewy sentence that recalls bits of her first essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion tries to distance herself from the political class she will soon indict.

In the course of these eight essays, she is hardly uncovering some previously unknown factoid about our polity or the government that controls it. She is, though, holding our political figureheads accountable, questioning the uptick in moral righteousness that ensued in the wake of the Clinton sex scandal, questioning the relationship of campaign propaganda to fact, questioning the dignity of the country’s foremost political journalists and, most importantly and yet not unfamiliarly, questioning the extent to which the American electorate is represented by its politicians. “It was clear for example in 1988,” she writes in the book’s foreword, “that the political process had already become perilously remote from the electorate it was meant to represent.” Displaying her many virtues as a political journalist, among them her incessant curiosity and aversion to accepting the country’s politics as bible, she proposes “the democracy we spoke of spreading throughout the world was now in our own country only an ideality.”

In this year’s election, Didion’s focus on the not insignificant fissure between the American electorate and its politicians appears more prescient than ever. When the country’s two major-party candidates are disliked and distrusted by a majority of Americans, her assertion that “half the nation’s citizens had only a vassal relationship to the government under which they lived” is revealed to be not only true but, horrifyingly, an underestimation. In Political Fictions, Didion deconstructs this phenomenon, repudiating the notion that it is apathy driving Americans away from voting booths; instead, it is varying degrees of “alienation” and “disenchantment” that explain why only half the country actively participates in politics. In 2016, anyone remotely attuned to the ongoing reality show that is the election would note that few Americans are apathetic; it is an intense ethical and even existential aversion to the opposing candidate that will incentivize millions to vote.

In analyzing the machine that is the American political process, Didion turns her focus towards the words and stories that are fed to the country’s citizens. In most cases, it is a steady diet of platitudinous drivel and esoteric policy talk. But this year, words—however vapid or inflammatory or insidious—appear to be more important than ever. One of our candidates uses them to harness the rage and frustration of his constituency while conveying no actual policy ideas, no actual understanding of government, and little, if any, understanding of the plights of the lower and middle classes, immigrants, Muslims, women and those other than himself. Words, for Donald Trump, are largely a kind of performative, political chicanery. And yet they are dangerous and effective because the candidate and his supporters seem to believe what he says, buy into the political fiction that Trump represents a plainspoken, messianic strain of leadership. No verbal gaffe seems to sink Mr. Trump, because, as Didion realized almost two decades ago, the words of a politician count less than the reaction to them, which, in Trump’s case, is a media-savvy mix of outrage and ardor, enthusiasm and abhorrence.

Presidential elections are largely dictated by narrative, by the establishment of unmalleable binaries that make it simple to distinguish the candidates. With Clinton and Trump, these binaries are even simpler: insider versus outsider, establishment politics versus populism, left versus right, buttoned-up versus candid, female versus male. Didion brings to her essays, especially “Insider Baseball” and “Political Pornography,” a keen understanding of these ironclad narratives and the perceptiveness of a consummate outsider; unlike Bob Woodward, whose books, Didion says, lack a “measure of cerebral activity,” Didion is skeptical. It was in 1979, in her tour de force essay “The White Album,” that she wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The line, one of the most quotable Didion ever wrote, could be modified in Political Fictions: politicians tell us stories in order to live. For all its rigorous reportage, Didion’s collection, like our politics, is driven by a singular narrative: that the country’s political firmament is a series of carefully strewn, expediently crafted fictions.

“Insider Baseball” is one of Didion’s most poignant pieces here, a judiciously written essay on the ‘88 election that finds, as its central conflict, the disparity between the campaigns themselves and the way in which they were reported. Didion writes:

“American reporters “like” covering a presidential campaign (it gets them out on the road, it has balloons, it has music, it is viewed as a big story, one that leads to the respect of one’s peers, to the Sunday shows, to lecture fees and often to Washington), which is one reason why there has developed among those who do it so arresting an enthusiasm for overlooking the contradictions inherent in reporting that which occurs only in order to be reported. They are willing, in exchange for “access,” to transmit the images their sources wish transmitted. They are even willing, in exchange for certain colorful details around which a “reconstruction” can be built (the “kitchen table” at which the Dukakis campaign conferred on the night Lloyd Bentsen was added to the Democratic ticket, the “slips of paper” on which key members of the Bush campaign, aboard Air Force Two on their way to New Orleans, wrote down their own guesses for vice-president), to present these images not as a story the campaign wants told but as fact.”

Didion recalls a moment in the Dukakis campaign when, upon the candidate’s arrival in San Diego, he and his press secretary played catch with a baseball on the tarmac. It is a quintessentially American moment, one where the politician acts as everyman, not unlike when Hillary Clinton had a beer in Iowa or stood in line at a Chipotle in Ohio; not unlike the image of Trump eating KFC on his private plane; not unlike the photo, posted by his son, Tagg, of Mitt Romney doing his own laundry; and not unlike footage, at the 2000 Democratic Convention, of Al Gore body-surfing. Didion even reports that George H.W. Bush’s press handlers requested, during the candidate’s visit to the Middle East, “that, at every stop on the itinerary, camels be present.”

What can be plainly discerned from this hackneyed tradition of “Stars, They’re Just Like Us” photo-ops is that our politicians have become such intangible, robotic creatures that savvy campaign marketing guys must resort to dishonest stagecraft to establish a connection with the American electorate. Didion, though, notes that these campaign events require a kind of wholesale complicity among insiders and journalists alike: “What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing, then, was an understanding,” she writes, “a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a setup and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too “naive” to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.”

Didion, then, moves onto the conventions, which she describes as “worlds all their own, constantly transmitting their own images back to themselves.” Here, in a small mention that’s equal parts foreboding and funny, we see how the political fiction, or nightmare, that is Trump may have began 28 years ago. She writes:

“In the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans as in the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, the grids of lights blazed and dimmed hypnotically. Men with rifles patrolled the high catwalks. The nets packed with thousands of balloons swung gently overhead, poised for that instant known as the “money shot,” the moment, or “window,” when everything was working and no network had cut to a commercial. The minicams trawled the floor, fishing in Atlanta for Rob Lowe, in New Orleans for Donald Trump.”

The most ironic thing about this sentence is not that Trump was at the RNC almost three-decades ago, but that cameras were searching for him as a celebrity in the vein of Rob Lowe, an attendee whose presence provided entertainment rather than political value.

The restored vestiges of that summer in New Orleans, and the rest of the 1990s political maelstrom, are alive and well today. We see it in the bombast of Newt Gingrich (“absent an idea that can be sold at Disney World, he has tended to lose interest,” writes Didion in
“Newt Gingrich, Superstar”); we see it “the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent” Bill Clinton, whose sex scandal Didion details in “Clinton Agonistes”; we see it in the constant invocation of God in American politics, which Didion criticizes in “God’s Country,” an essay that appropriately foresaw the death of “compassionate conservatism”; and, finally, we see it in “Political Pornography,” Didion’s passionate 23-page denouncement of Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward:

“Mr. Woodward’s aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him has been generally understood as an admirable quality—at best a mandarin modesty, at worst a kind of executive big-picture focus, the entirely justifiable oversight of someone with a more important game to play.”

The essay, which originally ran in the New York Review of Books as “The Deferential Spirit,” includes anecdotes about Woodward’s “cartoon”-like kowtow to both Clinton and Bob Dole before it continues: “Those who talk to Mr. Woodward, in other words, can be confident that he will be civil (“I too was growing tired, and it seemed time to stand up and thank him”), that he will not feel impelled to make connections between what he is told and what is already known, that he will treat even the most patently self-serving account as if untainted by hindsight…”

Woodward’s deference, Didion explains, derives from his ultimate focus on the “human story.” It is a firm belief in the prevalence of good intentions that leads Woodward to a “crude personalization” that “works to narrow the focus, to circumscribe the range of possible discussion or speculation.” In pursuit of the humanity of Washington politicians, of conversations, like the one included in Woodward’s The Choice, between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton on “the importance of mothers,” there is ultimately little discovered that is germane to the titular “choice” Americans must make. It is impossible, then, to read Didion’s account of this journalistic incompetence without being reminded, again, of the 2016 election.

Much has been made this election season about the press’ complicity in furthering Trump’s narrative in spite of his colossal unfitness for the Presidency. Journalists, broadcasters, moderators and the rest, those who constitute the overwhelming monolith known as The Media, have been accused of leaving stones unturned, of inadequately attacking Trump for his lies, of creating a false equivalency between he and Clinton that suggests his iniquities are on par with her’s (Benghazi, emails, etc.). This phenomenon can be seen in the hawkish pursuit of pay-for-play narratives with the Clinton’s foundation; despite no evidence that proves wrongdoing, the story, suggesting a quid pro quo with the Clinton’s and their foundation’s biggest donors, has now become irrevocable fact.

And still, there have been no shortage of op-eds and well-researched stories detailing Trump’s xenophobia, his ties to white nationalism, his trail of bankruptcies, his fraudulent business deals, his grave lack of experience and policy knowledge and, finally, his temperament, one that’s exceptionally ill-suited for the role of Commander-in-Chief. But the narrative, like a joke that you can’t take back, has remained in the American consciousness, one that suggests he’s the change-making, anti-establishment choice to Clinton’s insider “cronyism.”

Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote that the equivalency narrative recalls the 2000 election, in which “media coverage gave the impression that Mr. Bush was a bluff, straightforward guy, while portraying Al Gore — whose policy proposals added up, and whose critiques of the Bush plan were completely accurate — as slippery and dishonest.” Krugman’s columns, in the final sprint to November 8th, have become increasingly subsumed in anxiety that the media is flubbing it yet again, that its insistence on impartiality has the effect of distorting the story rather than ensuring its evenhandedness. On the topic of Woodward’s journalism, Didion, too, shows a strong distaste for this obedience to campaign narratives:

“The genuflection towards fairness is a familiar newsroom piety…In Washington, however, a community in which the management of news has become the single overriding preoccupation of the core industry, what ‘fairness’ has often come to mean is a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.”

When Donald Trump spoke with Matt Lauer at NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum, the plainly untrue story that Trump opposed the Iraq war was accepted as presented. So too was the story of Trump’s business acumen, despite evidence to the contrary. His appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s show, which was, by all accounts, abhorrently chummy, sparked a series of op-eds arguing that the media is normalizing Trump and his historically abnormal candidacy. But the notion that journalists and essayists have failed to hold Trump accountable is, as any search through the opinion pages of the Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, et al. will tell you, is not entirely true. Thorough repudiations of Trump’s bigotry and ignorance are as easy to come by as his petulant tweets. But the media, as Didion explains, is increasingly viewed with skepticism, seen as the mouthpiece of the “permanent political class,” as an enterprise that’s complicit in the establishment of narratives that keep power and clout in the hands of those who’ve always had it.

Thus, Trump’s campaign persistently fans the flames of media distrust, pushing a narrative that journalists are unfair to him. Consequently, it appears that no scathing op-ed, no thorough recounting of the fraudulent Trump University, no history of Trump Management’s discrimination against black tenants, no investigation into the man’s Atlantic City bankruptcies, no indictment of his birtherism or his racism or his sexism, can bring him down. Americans feel alienated from the process, disengaged from their news sources, and skeptical of their leaders, and Trump’s capitalization on all this mistrust and dissatisfaction is the most grandiose political fiction of them all. He has encouraged his supporters to mistrust the messenger, and with that goes the message.

Dissatisfaction has been the driving force behind much of Didion’s writing, buoyed by a trenchant, whip-smart prose style and a firm understanding of the spasmodic currents of culture and politics. In Political Fictions, her dissatisfaction is greater than ever, appearing not curmudgeonly or smug but appropriately critical and, in this year’s election, almost prophetic. While it’s been five years since her last published work, Blue Nights, revisiting Political Fictions plants Didion’s commentary firmly in the now. All you have to do is read “The West Wing of Oz”, a piece on Ronald Reagan. “From the outset,” she writes, “the invention of a president who could be seen as active rather than passive, who could be understood to possess mysteriously invisible and therefore miraculously potent leadership skills, became a White House priority.” There are those who see Trump, in his showmanship, as the second coming of Reagan, the savior of the GOP. Reading Political Fictions makes me wonder what Joan Didion might have to say about that.

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