The first Presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle can be compared to the annual appearance of Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day. It was a highly touted and media-overdetermined event that most likely in the long run was of little consequence.
The “debate changed nothing fundamental about the race for the White House,” Damon Linker of the left-leaning British online news magazine The Week moaned. And such a sentiment was not isolated among the vast variety of “never Trump” passionistas. Even Michael Moore, the long-tenured doyen of American progressive politics, was reported to have made the rather unseasonable observation that “Trump’s gonna win” and exhorted Hilary’s supporters to awaken from their dogmatic slumber.
In the run-up to the long-awaited matchup New York Times columnist David Brooks, part of the PBS news team that hosted and framed the debate, offered the somewhat astute pre-debate opinion that whatever facts and figures were trotted out, however in command of the issues either candidate proved to be, the debate would be won simply on the basis of an “emotional connection” between the candidate and the viewers.
Given that by every standard of thespian excellence Hilary Clinton should have won hands-down, even while the majority of post-debate snap polls from different media sources gave Donald Trump a very slight advantage, Brooks’ remark proved to be prophetic. In this election, Linker pointed out, it is not about competence, but affect. The “voters appear to care about something else — something that places Trump and Clinton on opposite sides, not just of the usual partisan divide, but of a political and cultural chasm.”
If one were to circulate for a few hours after the debate in the twittersphere, one could see how yawning this chasm was. Every academic I know, who comprise the vast majority of my own Twitter followers, were celebrating Hillary’s stunning “victory.” Meanwhile, I happened at a local Denver bar to come across a conventicle of pro-Trump, white male millennials who were shouting, high-fiving, and uproariously laughing over how “The Donald kicked ass.”
What the snap polls tended to show the following morning was fairly obvious. Each candidate had already “won” by appealing with intense and effective emotional gambits to their respective bases, which reflect competing, but entrenched world visions.
Why is anyone surprised? Various sophisticated and quantitative surveys during the 2012 election (e.g., Pew and PRRI) showed that country happen to be almost evenly divided in their respective value commitments and what we might be called “truth standards”. Less solid evidence suggests that this divide is at least a generation old, and may in fact hark back half a century. Even though it may be an invidious epiphenomenon of America’s own, distinctive partisan political system, it reflects fundamental schisms, which over time have widened into chasms, in our economic and political habitats which increasingly compass much of the rest of the world.
As sundry discerning political philosophers from Wendy Brown to Maurizio Lazzarato along with the anonymous French collectives of thinkers and activists who called themselves Tiqqun have noted, we are rushing headling into a world in which moral valuations, all subjectivities, all abstrusely constructed “identities” have been conscripted into the service of a global virtual “machine” that destroys the dignity of productive labor, the richness of cultural history and expression, the universality of human fidelity and engagement with “otherness” into a quantitative, financial apparatus of capture.
Put aphoristically, “capital” has “learned to say all the right things” and make all the right arguments. It appeals to our very “best” nature. Otherwise, we would not be good consumers of its increasingly ethereal products like the internet platform on which these thoughts are inscribed. The problem is that these supposedly “moral” and “humanizing” platitudes, for which the “socially conscious” university-corporate-government complex with its crushing administrative system of peonage, taxation, and debt, are increasingly perceived by a sizable segment of the population as fraudulent, dishonest, and self-serving.
The knowledge classes, which are indisputably the ruling classes, of the dominant global neo-liberal order see themselves as “saviors” of all the world’s congenital ills from racism, sexism, militarism, xenophobia, and of course an illimitable array of unlettered parochialisms.
But the “rest”, particularly in the Western democracies, increasingly perceive this fashionable hauteur as thoroughly hypocritical and predatory. Hence, a political novice can become a champion, a cultural boor a secretly cherished icon. We are witnessing a full-blown version of what Jürgen Habermas a generation earlier called a “legitimation crisis,” and what was once considered “reasonable” is now considered by burgeoning masses of Americans as cant and unreason.
One of the most compelling themes of this week’s Presidential debate was how each candidate piously appealed to “facts”, which on careful analysis amounted to little more than abstract claims or glittering generalities. When specifics were given, they often boiled down to distortions or outright lies. It is true that Trump did, as he is accustomed to doing, utter not a few absolute howlers, but that mattered little to his supporters, who are less motivated by precision of what he says than by the substance of what is being asserted.
As politicians learned the hard way during the Vietnam era, adopting a smug, “we have all the data and solutions on our side and you can’t challenge us because you’re an un-degreed boob” stance toward the question of factuality can be politically disastrous, especially if the confident assertions do not immediately pan out. It was the philosopher Nietzsche who famously wrote that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” and it is ironic that the less educated seem to be more attuned to that fraught insight than the conspicuously learned.
One wonders if the frequent mantra of the current regime that “we are defeating ISIS” does not have the same rhetorical cash value of defense secretary Robert McNamara throughout the 1960s that “we are winning in Vietnam.”
It was Nietzsche, moreover, who made the fateful discovery that the dogma of “truth” is but a self-deceptive mechanism for obscuring one’s own fanatical commitment to certain unshakable value-positions. Nietzsche called the method of unmasking these commitments “genealogy.” And it was Marx during the same period who exposed the way in which these values themselves are embedded in unconscious economic interests, a strategy he named “critique” and what we now know as “critical theory.”
One needs, therefore, to read the debates – and its incessant and insufferable political rah-rah – with a certain “hermeneutics of suspicion.”
As the much maligned debate moderator Lester Holt put it in a disarming and dead-pan aside, one of the two people debating was bound to lose to the other. Hopefully, when the verdict arrives come November, we will stop strip-mining the surface of our political monomanias and begin seriously a genealogy of our own “deep politics” and moral divisions that might actually result in some social healing.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is also managing editor of Political Theology Today. His latest book are Critical Theology: Introducing An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016) and Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) . His book The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012), looks at the ways in which major trends in Continental philosophy over the past two decades have radically altered how we understand what we call “religion” in general. His previous two books – GloboChrist (Baker Academic, 2008) and The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004) – examine the most recent trends and in paths of transformations at an international level in contemporary Christianity.