All the Presidents, Angry White Men

by Haley Mlotek


Political campaigns are a natural predator of pauses. Like other imaginary opponents threatening this American way of life, silence must be defeated or converted. There is simply no time to waste!

The excruciating length of the 2016 campaign is now just as safe to deride in acceptable cocktail party conversations as it is to discuss, say, the weather, or a critically acclaimed cable television drama, a funny little exception to the rule about avoiding politics in mixed company. Even people with opposing viewpoints can come together in their sheer boredom of hearing the same stump speeches day in, day out. With the Iowa caucuses behind us, we’re finally seeing the days we thought would never come: Soon, at least, we’ll have…candidates. As opposed to….more candidates. Wait, why is this better? Isn’t this potentially worse? I’m picturing the triumph of some of our most unanimously loathed candidates now, the would-be presidents who are pretty safe to deride at the parties I’ve been attending, unless someone invited a man who takes pleasure in being deliberately contrary. We’ll have to hear so much, so much more than we already have, if that’s even possible! There will be no mute button loud enough to protect us.

A good strategy, in the absence of a real-life mute button, is to just not listen. As the good people of Iowa were doing whatever it is that comprises a caucus, I was out with two Canadian friends, one of whom reported that Bernie Sanders was ahead right when I sat down for our late dinner, and then we didn’t discuss American politics again. By the time we had moved on to drinks, a quick Twitter search showed that Ted Cruz had started his victory speech; later I was home, and though I could’ve checked it out for myself, I preferred to believe the tweets reporting that Cruz had spoken for so long that Fox News had simply switched over to Bernie Sanders right before midnight, because it’s important to celebrate those moments in life when someone is saying so much while they pretend like they’re saying nothing at all.

In a speech that was neither victorious nor concessional, Sanders spoke about how this “virtual tie,” in his words, was its own badge of honour. When he started this campaign, “We had no political organization; we had no money; no name recognition. And we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America.” Sanders strikes me as someone who thrives within this kind of margin, too close being the place where he feels fine making a call. After all, he is right. Even after analysts and other political psychics started predicting real gains against Hillary Clinton, the qualities that earned him so much exuberant support never transformed from liabilities to assets. I guess that’s a strategy too, and it has been open season for strategies. We have candidates who vary widely in their experiences and plans, long-shots turned sure-bets and sure-bets turned into the human embodiment of sorry who? when their face appears on our screens. A lot of things seem different, even though I keep reminding myself that this is merely my Canadian eyes reading something that isn’t there. Candidates always positions themselves as outsiders! In haters we trust.

From his second-place position, Donald Trump managed to make a speech that was both victorious and accessional. The parallels — aesthetically and politically — between Trump and Sanders are not the kind of united front I think they would want to present, but they do reflect some similarities. For example, they’ve both amassed a large population of the same kind of undesirable voter: “They are angry at a political system they see as rigged,” John Leland began in Saturday’s New York Times. “Both groups are heavily white, more male than female, and both are fuelled partly by people who, in interviews, express distrust of their parties and the other candidates, especially Hillary Clinton.”

If I were to apply this demographic profile to my (narrow, limited) purview, I’d say it’s one comprising the contrarian men inexplicably invited to parties I really should stop attending. An angry white man is nothing to joke about, or so they keep telling me; an angry white man who views himself as anti-establishment, beyond being the kind of paradoxical inaccuracy so deeply impossible it should cross over into being very funny, is even less of a joke. Sanders has been unfortunate enough to be made the recipient of a related hashtag: the #BernieBro. It was recently the subject of a Facebook-based experiment by Jezebel’s Joanna Rothkopf, who picked two pro-Bernie Facebook groups to bait, leaving the comment, “Bernie is great, but isn’t Hillary more electable?” One group simply deleted the comment (political elegance is refusal, or something) and the other was equally predictable: “No she’s a fucking twat,” read one response. “I am of the opinion that $hillary is a fucking twat. TWAT TWAT TWAT. Bye felicia!” Rothkopf pointed out that even as these comments were posted, sensible Bernie Bros came to her defence. While one Sanders supporter said she shouldn’t even be in the Facebook group after posting such a statement, another responded, “Yes she should, we would love for you to come aboard the Bernie train. Please watch, continue to do your research and keep asking questions. We need to keep educating people not turning them away. Everyone should #feelthebern.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s followers, though lacking in an effective group designation (on Trump’s Instagram he sometimes refers to his supporters as the #TrumpTrain, which if nothing else shows that money and a persistent influx of fringe support can still not buy alliterative cleverness in a hundred and forty characters or less), are both surprisingly and predictably hateful, and — surprise! — their latest targets are women. They get really excited when they have the opportunity to criticize a woman’s appearance, and and they really like when they can find a way to relate a woman’s attractiveness to a woman’s sexual viability.

Here, especially, is the place to look at the kinds of mirrors political campaigns inevitably turn into: They show opposing sides more reflections than oppositions. The trends and patterns that appear from all sides do not say that we’re in this together — lol — but they do more to tell us about a sweeping spread of sentiment, the kinds of emotional reasoning and social archetypes that predict wins and losses of all sorts, not just in politics. Also, now that we’re really looking, don’t Bernie and Trump kind of resemble each other? You know, the wild hair, the ill-fitting suits, their carefully cultivated underdog status manifesting in the way they hold their shoulders on a slight slant when they hold a microphone. Oh my god, now that we’re really thinking about it, has anyone ever seen Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the same room at the same time? No, just kidding. I love a good political conspiracy as much as any late-night Wikipedia reader, but it’s already enough of a mindfuck to consider how much of the two-party system remains a two-way mirror; it’s already bleak enough to look up just as American politics returns to a constant channel flipping between men who, for all demographic purposes, look exactly the same.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, I was originally hoping to see what kind of cold-weather accessories the candidates wore in Iowa, but global warming is real. There is no dignity in weather preparedness; it’s so hard to look presidential in a puffer jacket. The unseasonable warmth means that candidates can keep their necks bare and their shoes pristine, deflating all hopes of seeing the candidates in their snowsuits (not to mention hopes of a hospitable planet for future generations perhaps governed by these very candidates, but I digress). Jeb Bush appears to feel the same way I do about the winter weather; here is, for some reason, a photo of him staring wistfully at a pair of Timberlands.

Jeb on Trump’s footwear: “if it’s the difference between Berluti and timberlands, I’m going timberlands”

— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) January 22, 2016

Voters, find a candidate who stares at you the way Jeb Bush stares at these sensible winter shoes.

Last night, everyone did a good job of looking like slightly better-lit versions of themselves. Sanders combed his hair and Clinton wore red lipstick. Marco Rubio’s suit sleeves were just a little too big. It was the same with Trump and Cruz, a detail about men’s clothing that has always felt telling: Is it aspiration? Are they hoping to grow into the sleeves? Or is it a vanity they don’t prioritize? How can they not notice, and why does nobody tell them? When they move their arms the excess fabric moves away from them, the kind of sartorial effect I want to believe says more than it really does. In the meantime, I’ll take whatever I can glean from realizing that Ted Cruz always wears two watches:

Of all the things to be creeped out about with Ted Cruz, I’m finding the 2 watches thing to be the most unsettling

— Kenny Keil (@kennykeil) February 1, 2016

If a stopped watch is right twice a day, are two watches right four times a day? Like most things Ted Cruz promises to find out, I dread hearing those results.

Anyway, maybe global warming real isn’t real after all. Iowa is in the middle of a blizzard right now, which conveniently started after the caucus was over. “That’s right, Iowa, you won’t be able to blame the weather if you shrug off your civic duty,” a rather pointed statement coming from the Des Moines Register. Although I’ve seen more pointed statements come out of this current Iowa caucus; for example, a journalist from Canada’s National Post shared this photo of a t-shirt for sale at a hotel gift shop:

The are so many journalists in Iowa right now the hotels are selling journalist specific souvenirs.

— Richard Warnica (@richardwarnica) February 1, 2016

I’m waiting for the t-shirt that simply reads, “Are you still talking?” But I guess that’s what the mute button is for.

Pomp and Propaganda is a new occasional series about the aesthetics of the 2016 presidential campaign. It is written by a Canadian.

Photo by Gage Skidmore