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The Instant Nostalgia of the Televised Campaign

On watching a presidential election through the grainy medium of TV

ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN KAREL

“What are we hearing, my friend?” asks Fox News host Neil Cavuto. He is speaking from a bright Fox studio. On the other side of the split screen is Peter Doocy, a Fox reporter, live from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Doocy is wearing a very bright, almost reflective striped shirt, as if he fears venturing too far from Fox headquarters without the protective armor of Fox’s extraordinary, garish palate of kindergarten colors. He is reporting on Joe Biden’s decision to name a running mate.

“Neil,” Doocy replies, “this is a video that you are only going to see on the Fox News channel.” In an age of digital reproduction, when every bit of text and image is instantly snipped, posted, retweeted, and commented upon thousands of times, the media’s persistent devotion to the idea of the scoop, the exclusive, is a charming anachronism.

After a few befuddling bits of footage of the former vice president walking around in a mask and saying something about jobs, they cut to the clip in question. Biden clicks toward the camera on a bike as Doocy calls, “Mr. Vice President, have you picked a running mate yet?” “Yeah, I have,” Biden calls back. “Who is it?” Doocy asks, as a second unidentifiable voice from out of shot does the same. Biden, coming right into the frame as he wheels past, turns and looks at the camera, his aviators pointing directly at you, me, televisionland, and he says, as if speaking to us directly: “You.”

By now, gallons of ink, in publications from Vice to Vox, have been wasted on pieces that describe Trump as our “reality TV” president, to treat his singular love of the medium, and its unquenchable thirst for him, as a definitive break from the past, when presidents were on, but not of, television. As is so often the case with Trump, this argument both exaggerates his importance while underestimating the forces and tendencies that he represents. If it’s true that the power of The Apprentice created the necessary conditions for him to win the election, then it is also true that the whole setup of his reality empire derived from American political culture, from the quadrennial contest that puts presidential wannabes through a series of preposterous challenges and made-for-the-screen arguments, until at last only one remains.

It would be easy to let the idea that presidential politics is nothing more than gaudy, bread-and-circus entertainment harden into a schema that obscures as much as it illuminates. But there is at least one way in which this election may be unique in American history: It will be conducted almost exclusively on TV. The coronavirus has put a stop to door knocking, pancake breakfasts, speeches to thousands of cheering fans. Trump tried to hold one rally, which was ridiculed for low attendance and made infamous for the unmasked appearance of Herman Cain, who later died of Covid-19. His second, an evening screed before Mount Rushmore, was only slightly better attended. Biden, meanwhile, spent the first few months of the pandemic giving awkward TV hits from his basement. His campaign has knocked on zero doors in recent weeks, and while he has himself been more visible of late, these appearances have an unmistakable air of theater.

To some extent, this has happened before. Nixon jealously guarded his screen image as president. Reagan, who had begun to show signs of decline by 1984, also ran a carefully controlled campaign for reelection. (He famously hired Hal Riney, a lifelong adman, who made both the “Morning in America” ad and the truly strange, almost psychedelic “Bear in the Woods” spot.) And yet there was still some sense, in those campaigns and in those presidencies, that something was happening out in the real world, and that TV was only covering it. Now the opposite feels true; it’s a TV show about a TV show, TV shows all the way down.

The campaigns have responded to the conditions of full TV immersion in various and variously effective ways. Trump has given several long interviews, one to Fox’s Chris Wallace and another, shot, astonishingly, in the jittery, handheld style of an Armando Iannucci comedy, to Axios’s Jonathan Swan. Such interviews may be the terminal metastasis of televisual culture: a host body being consumed by its own cells and organs. In another time, I would have described the Axios interview as “disastrous.” Was it, though? Like an old sitcom, everything resets after the credits roll, and next week the characters are all exactly the same.

Biden has had several fairly disastrous interviews of his own, at one point telling a Black interviewer, Charlamagne tha God, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black,” at others trailing off before muttering, “I shouldn’t say that.” In an effort to sharpen his image, a group of Never Trump Republican consultants and admen have formed the Lincoln Project, which makes the sort of sharp-nosed ads about Trump that used to be the province of, well, Republican consultants and admen. These ads have a general Swift Boat Veterans for Truth sensibility about them, adopting the Roger Ailes adage of attacking your enemy for his perceived strengths. They are not bad as ads go, certainly better than the mush-mouthed palaver that Democrats usually serve up, but are they good? Will they work? Though they appeal to the desire to knock Trump down a peg, they evince precisely the gauzy nostalgia for a lost, better America that got Trump elected.

As I write this, the Democrats have begun their “virtual convention.” The morning takes come predigested. Michelle Obama’s “epic shade” “won” the night. Biden talked at screens full of Black faces about half-measures to fix the police. Pols failed to calibrate their speeches for the flattened effect of webcams and laptops. If you are as old as I am, you remember the goofy amateurism of cable access. This was that—and we may be seeing a lot more like it this fall.

Television is an inherently nostalgic medium. This does not mean that it looks specifically to the past, but rather that it builds a false mythology of the present, as Leave It to Beaver created a fake late-’50s America in late-’50s America. Maybe that is the point. To feel nostalgia is not to be reminded of something so much as it is to feel the pleasant sensation of recollection without having to remember. So, too, these bizarre campaigns. And, of course, there is the sense that people are tired of The President Show. This may be Biden’s main strength as a candidate. He promises to keep the long-running series going, but gives you an excuse to change the channel.