One of the most popular international media parlor games stemming from the soap opera of the American primaries is drawing parallels between the most out-there candidates in national races. Tony Blair declares that Jeremy Corbyn is the Donald Trump of the Labour leadership contest, and everyone else gleefully responds that, no, he’s actually the Bernie Sanders. Is Ben Carson Donald Trump Lite? Scott Walker argued that Rahm Emanuel is the Scott Walker of the Democrats (Unintimidated, 179). The comedian running for office in Guatemala—more like Trump, or more like Bernie, or more like Jon Stewart and/or Stephen Colbert (of the Colbert Report, not the Late Show) taken to their logical conclusions?
I would like to offer another comparison, partly because again, it’s one of the piles of coincidences stacking up as I read these books that make me shake my head and cringe, but also because I’m curious what this says about the ‘outsider’ candidates’ understanding of their role. I’m curious about how candidates interpret the media attention they get, especially when that media attention is less Fox/NBC/CBS and more Facebook/Twitter. The idea of something ‘going viral’ has been a feature of electoral campaigns from the late 1990s, but is still perhaps a phenomenon that no one quite knows how to interpret. Speeches go viral. Gaffes go viral, often GIF’d. On the other hand, so do cat videos. Cat video creators too have bit segments on the morning news shows, often vying with political candidates. It is nothing new or interesting to say that publicity and media attention now is different than it was two, ten, twenty years ago. What might be interesting is the way it has created Sanders and Carson as national candidates.
Let’s play bingo. Although Sanders and Carson differ quite markedly on the issues they raise, some points of structure in how they introduce their books are remarkably similar. All quotes are taken from the preface to Ben Carson’s book One Nation and Bernie Sanders’ book The Speech. I have led with Sanders because his book was published in 2011 and Carson’s was published in 2014.
The “Who, Me?”
Sanders: “When I walked on to the floor, I had no idea how long I would stay there. When I was Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s, I sometimes gave speeches for as long as an hour. That was it. Would I last three hours, five hours, twenty hours? I really didn’t know. What I was clear about in my own mind, however, was that I wasn’t going to read form the phone book or sing songs just to eat up time. I wanted to speak for as long as I had something relevant to say.”
Carson: “I was totally shocked when in the fall of 2012 my office received a call inquiring whether I would be willing to give the keynote address for the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast… I prayed about it and felt that there was a reason why I was being asked for a repeat performance” (ix).
Bonus Bernie: (the “Who, Me?” with extra suspense points)
“On Friday, December 10, 2010, I woke up at my usual time, had my usual breakfast of oatmeal and coffee at the Dirksen Senate Building, and then had a typical daily discussion with some of my staff… At 10:30 a.m. I walked onto the floor of the Senate and began a speech. It turned out to be a very long speech, a modern version of the filibuster. It went on for eight and a half hours—until 7 p.m” (ix).
The “It Went Viral!”
Sanders: “Was I surprised about the kind of attention that the speech received? Are you kidding? The phones in both my Washington and Vermont offices never stopped ringing. In Vermont, every one of my eight staff people did nothing else all day but respond to calls—thousands of calls. And emails!… The number of people who signed up as friends on my Facebook page doubled the previous total in one day, and visits to my website went sky-high” (xiii).
Carson: “Although I thought the speech was good—the audience response was overwhelming, I had no idea that it would go viral and that literally millions of people would be talking about it over the next few days” (xxv).
The “Look, mainstream media liked it too!”
Sanders: “The Senate television website crashed because of the huge number of people who wanted to watch the speech live, online, and apparently C-SPAN 2 had an exceptional day. According to the New York Times, my speech was the most twittered event in the world on that day. There were front-page stories in newspapers around the country, and the speech was covered widely in the international media” (xiii).
Carson: “The conservative news outlets were very excited about the talk and in fact the Wall Street Journal penned an article entitled, “Ben Carson for President” (xxv).
The Obama Dig:
Sanders: “Some journalists even claimed that Obama held an unscheduled, impromptu press conference with former President Bill Clinton, who defended the tax deal, in order to divert media attention away from what I was doing on the senate floor” (xiii).
Carson: “Many have commented that the president appeared to be uncomfortable during my speech, but I was not paying particular attention to him or his reactions, as my comments were really directed more at the American people than the people on the dais… within a matter of minutes I received a call from some of the prayer breakfast organizers saying that the White House was upset and requesting that I call the president and apologize for offending him. I said that I did not think that he was offended and that I didn’t think that such a call was warranted” (xxv).
The “Maybe This Should Be a Manifesto”
Sanders: “The very strong response to my speech tells me that there is a hunger all over America for a discussion about economic truths, for a counterattack on the ferocious assaults that are taking place against working families, and for a practical plan on how we can reverse the obscene politics that favor the rich over the middle class and the disadvantaged in our nation. If my speech helped educate people about some of these issues, made them aware that they’re not along in their concerns or their pain, and pointed a way to the future, it was well worth it” (xiv).
Carson: “This reaction was a reflection of the fact that the American people are excited to know that they are not the only ones who value common sense. People are also excited when they see one of their fellow citizens unintimidated by political correctness and unafraid to express his opinions” (xxv).
“Knowing that the future of my grandchildren and everyone else’s is put in jeopardy by a continuation of reckless spending, godless government, and mean-spirited attempts to silence critics leaves me with little choice but to continue to expound on the principles outlined in my prayer breakfast speech and to fight for a bright future for America” (xxvi).
The Heroes We Deserve
So the template goes like this: false modesty, or, “I’m just one of the people!” A speech that doesn’t obey political conventions, including upsetting the most ‘Establishment figure’ there is, the sitting president. The speech commands viral attention. The candidate interprets this viral attention as grassroots support, and throws his hat into the ring (although they’re not declared in either book, I would argue that publishing books in the five-year run-up to this election points to at least keeping their options pretty wide open).
As a reader, when I see two pieces as similar as these introductions, I have a hard time trusting their sincerity. I know that this isn’t necessarily fair. Cliches exist as such because they have worked in the past, and grassroots support seems like a good thing for a candidate to have. But when the very claim to ‘outsider’ status is actually a strict adherence to a tired formula, it feels like pandering to this election cycle’s desire for stylized, yet recognizable characters. Maybe the American public wants a superhero, a funny, aggressively plain-spoken candidate with humble origins—although I think it needs said that Bernie at least has been a career politician, no matter how out-there. Maybe it’s not even the desire for one specific candidate. Maybe the Left in America wanted a bumbling-yet-aggressive, return-to-the-old-days candidate and the evangelical Right wanted a by-the-grace-of-God, no-excuses-Conservative candidate, and maybe the wrapping in which each side wanted their superhero, the swaddling garments they’ve donned, just happened to overlap. These are both classic superhero stories, in the greatest American tradition. In times of uncertainty, the public has wanted a hero, blessed with extraordinary powers, who would cut through the morass of ordinary politics to go straight to a solution that matters. In the Cold War, Superman was good enough for all of us, but now division within the US means that the evangelical far-right and the socialist relatively-far-left both feel marginalized and desperate, and each side wants a separate superhero. Beyond simply the hero figure, we also want a story: the power of the superhero myth is in part the humble origins, or the combination of the mysterious call* to service and the gifting with extraordinary powers. The power of super-speech.
I’ll come back to why these books were both disappointing to me, although in separate ways, later—but for the time being, I think it worth noting that no matter the policies, a huge part of what is at stake in this election is the way candidates draw their own characters. This is obvious, but bears repeating as often as it is repeated by the candidates.
*Carson explicitly refers to running only if he feels a religious calling, but there has always been an element of the Messianic in the American superhero story.
Books in this post: