Message, myopia, dystopia

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Michael Silverstein. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.1.027


Message, myopia, dystopia

Michael SILVERSTEIN, University of Chicago

The workings of “message”—a coherent, brand-like biographical chronotope—as it has long-circulated in the specifically American system of fifty-state presidential electoral politics helps to explain the outcome of the 2016 vote. The agōn of positive and negative messaging about the respective candidates, Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump, seems to have worked, at the regional margins of an otherwise remarkably stable system, to the ultimate disadvantage of the former and the ultimate advantage of the latter.

Keywords: US electoral politics, political message, Hillary Clinton, Donald J. Trump

Despite the claims of the recently installed Trump Administration, it certainly was not millions of votes of “illegal aliens” that won Secretary Clinton a commanding lead in the nationally aggregated popular vote. But a slight shift at the margins of polling expectation principally in several Rust Belt states won Mr. Trump the decisive lead in the Electoral College. The structural fact many people forget is that an American presidential election is actually fifty simultaneous state-level elections, however national the mediatized lens on them, and hence that the distribution of the popular votes in respect of state boundaries is what ultimately matters, and ought to matter to those who run presidential campaigns. Many presidential elections have hinged on a small number of state outcomes, even the results in a single state—Tilden vs. Hayes, Cleveland vs. Harrison in the nineteenth century; Nixon vs. Kennedy, Gore vs. Bush the Younger in more recent times. But what, I suppose, is gnawingly irksome for Secretary Clinton’s supporters in 2016 is the consistent direction of tilt in the Electoral College toward the Republican Party candidate in both twenty-first-century instances, the matter in the year 2000 decided not, as the Constitution prescribes, in the House of Representatives (as was the Tilden–Hayes contest in 1876) but by the US Supreme Court in a one-vote cliffhanger, and in the 2016 election notwithstanding a Democratic popular vote plurality of nearly 3,000,000 votes of some 128,825,223 certified overall.[408]

The media, lulled by the proba-ballistics launched by pollsters, have professed astonishment at Mr. Trump’s “upset victory” over Mrs. Clinton. But I think that if we retrace matters in the frame of political “message,” we can understand why all along they should have been—and some of us in fact were—preparing for it. “Message,” as I introduced in a little 2003 book, Talking Politics (Silverstein 2003), and as Michael Lempert and I developed further in Creatures of Politics (Lempert and Silverstein 2012), has nothing inherently to do with positions on issues of public policy; such issues become, at best, useful ingredients for or components of creating a message, and need not even be communicated in denotationally explicit language of committing to a certain position. That is what the metaphorical metapragmatic caption “dog whistle” describes, a political figure’s interdiscursive citation as an act of Bakhtinian voicing of a well-known word or phrase (“America first!”) articulated by stereotypic others so as to align the politician with a particular interest group who are, thereby, interpellated, called out by this verbal gesture to target them as like-minded addressees. Message need not even be communicated in language. Older Americans recall that Ronald Reagan’s 1980 anti–federal government campaign started with a speech announcing his candidacy for the presidency that was carefully located in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a famous, quasi-sacralized site of the politics of segregationist “state’s rights” deep in the heart of Dixie. Not a “dog whistle” so much as a tableau vivant of the candidate’s message. And more recently even in the primary run-ups to the 2008 Democratic Party presidential nomination, Barack Obama was repeatedly assailed—especially by Clintonistas, let alone Republicans—for not wearing an American flag pin on the left lapel of his beautifully cut Hart Schaffner & Marx [Marx!!!] suits. (He capitulated, though only after a speech about true vs. faux patriotism.)

Message in politics, like brand in the more obviously commercial marketplace, is thus a semiotic composite, a projectable distinctive (and thus differential) narrative or biography—of a political figure no less than of a product or service—that, whatever the facts of the matter, situates the imaginary of use-value or functionality in a chronotope, a space-time of relationship to the individuals in the voting public or consumer market. In marketing circles, brand is spoken of as “value added” by all the differential semiotic additives of packaging, placement, and promotion, and it must always be contingently curated, sometimes, as circumstances dictate, in fact requiring agile rebranding. Similarly the realm of electoral politics in contemporary times has been ever more conceptualized by professionals as political marketing designed, as positive message for one’s client, to keep the biographical imaginary fresh and relevant to key electoral constituencies with a trajectory of emplotment not only of a past and present, but most critically of a trustable future. (Mr. Trump as president keeps reminding his base that his every Executive Order and Cabinet, agency, or court appointment is making good on his campaign promises, note.) At the same time, since message is relational above all else, critical to the agonistic universe of electoral politics is the promotion of negative message for one’s political opponent(s), always being sufficiently agile to track the changing fortunes of an opponent’s positive message. (Note the example of the flag lapel pin above that, once dispatched, led to further insinuendo involving Mr. Obama’s association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright.)[409]

In the recent presidential cycle, then, we must start with the basic facts of (1) long-term stability of a great core of each political party’s electoral base, ensuring a “default” vote in the absence of message-driven reasons to do otherwise (reliably Democratic urban cores vs. reliably Republican suburbs and exurbs; stably reliable ethnic, class, etc. bases); (2) the persistent regional stability of dominance of one or the other major party, from the beginning of the nation’s history a pattern of electoral sectionalism stable, for one or another reason, over lengthy intervals of time though affected by patterns of migration (Federalist Atlantic Northeast vs. emerging [Democratic-]Republican South and noncoastal Midlands; Civil War–era Democratic Southeast transformed only by civil rights legislation in 1964 as “southern strategy” turf of the 1968 Humphrey vs. Nixon race); (3) the deplorable (or agreeable, depending on partisan strategy) and reliably consistent low turnout among eligible voters even in presidential years, but especially in default years (51.2 percent in 2000 [Gore v. Bush] with a popular vote difference of >0.5 million, compared to 58.2 percent in 2008 [McCain v. Obama] with a popular vote difference of <10 million; 2016 [Clinton v. Trump] is in the middle of the range at 55.3 percent with a popular vote difference of <3 million).

Hence, in most campaigns a politician’s message really operates at the margins. In a relatively default race—absent a definitive groundswell toward one candidate’s positive message or away from a candidate’s negative message—the idea is to tilt the popular tally ever so slightly in one or the other direction. This is, of course, the basic story of the electoral outcome in favor of Mr. Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (74 electoral votes), as well as in Florida (29 electoral votes). He seems to understand this at least retrospectively, whether he was fully convinced of the strategy formulated by his insightful team earlier or not. Note that in his January 25 interview with David Muir (CBS News 2017), all the while insisting on the fantasy of millions of bogus votes for his opponent, he reveals that

I focused on those four or five states that I had to win. Maybe she didn’t. She should’ve gone to Michigan. She thought she had it in the bag. She should’ve gone to Wisconsin; she thought she had it because you’re talking about 38 years of, you know, Democrat wins. But they didn’t. I went to Michigan, I went to Wisconsin. I went to Pennsylvania all the time. I went to all of the states that are—Florida and North Carolina. That’s all I focused on.

Mr. Trump’s aggregated margin over Mrs. Clinton in the Rust Belt states was approximately 77,000 votes—every state a squeaker, to be sure (though in several of these states, given the closeness of Democratic and Republican tallies, once more, as in 1992 and 2000, third and fourth party votes—not those of “illegal aliens!”—clearly played a role as did, crucially, unforeseen low urban voter turnout for Mrs. Clinton).

But such was the power of message, both positive and negative, targeted to voters traditionally of both major parties, that was in the instance sufficient to drop these states into Mr. Trump’s electoral cart. To be sure, both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton came to the presidential campaign with long-established messages; they were so familiar as celebrities in public life that their campaigns could rely on rich biographical detail and vast quantities of media material and stereotypes long [410]in the public sphere about which the public could simply be reminded (by their own or by the opposing campaign, of course). This condition of familiarity cuts both ways insofar any accumulated negatives require the candidate’s positive-message machine to direct people’s attention elsewhere—more easily accomplished in some circumstances than in others, as we will note. Who were these candidates who made it through the primary process?

As Kira Hall, Donna Goldstein, and Matthew Ingram (2016) note, Mr. Trump’s performances of a persona in his stage-time in debates with others and in his solo appearances were richly interdiscursive with the figure he created over several seasons of his “reality” show, The Apprentice, an almost theatrically gruff and blustery, aggressive and borderline rude, domineering boss. The performances, in the details surveyed by these authors, are also richly interdiscursive with the stand-up comedy of Don Rickles and the engagingly multivoiced monologues of Rush Limbaugh, as detailed by Robin Shoaps (1999) some years back. Not only insults of targets picked out and held up to ridicule before an entertained audience, but as well a constant moving back-and-forth between animating others in stereotype and then metapragmatically animating an evaluation of these stereotypes and what they represent in a Bakhtinian voicing that presumes upon and presumably aligns with the outlook and interests of the live or broadcast audience. (We can note, by contrast, the exceedingly flat and unconvincing inaugural address delivery on January 20, 2017, in which only those few slogans many times shouted at campaign rallies had any zing. As a performer, Mr. Trump was otherwise completely hobbled by the ex cathedra single-voiced rhetorical format usual to the speechifying genre of the occasion that his writers had composed for him so as to sound, as best he could, presidential—though the speech did still contain many insults, even several, as shocked the commentariat, directed at the large number of dignitaries seated on the platform behind him!)

Notwithstanding the agonistic nastiness of negative messaging almost required of so-called debates, Trump dominated as the domineering figure who pays no heed to what Goffman would term the ritual requirements of facework particularly important in events of state, such as multicandidate appearances, in which one’s demeanor and deference are part of normative expectations. (So ingrained are these in people who live among professional elites, that they—we—really have no way of countering such offensiveness; by the time, in the latter encounters, that a couple of Mr. Trump’s rivals tried to give as good as they got, he was far ahead of them in practiced, WWF-worthy bullying.) In Mr. Trump’s case, the unreconstructed nonelite, relatively noneducated language and the hokey iconic and deictic gestures are essential to enhancing the nonpolished—hence, “how-could-it-be-rehearsed?”—image of rough-and-tumble genuineness; while not quite Archie Bunkeresque (all the while delivering himself of un- or ill-informed Archie Bunker–like opinions of the “There oughta be a law. . .!” type), the borough of white working- and lower middle-class Queens clings winningly to his delivery notwithstanding Trump Tower is near Bergdorf’s and Tiffany’s.

This is a proletarian billionaire, America’s Silvio Berlusconi (another padrone with uncontrollable hands around young women), uncorrupted by politics to be sure but, note, as well uncorrupted for his supporters in an “I’m-giving-it-to-you-straight” manner by presumptive oodles of cash and branded properties (whoever [411]turns out actually to own them). To be sure, the Republican Party establishment, who have long played the game of dog whistling to their base indignant about so-called social issues of concern to the progressive Democratic elites, was mighty nervous about this true vulgarian, even past the time of his electoral victory, in fact, wondering how to take the alarming, shot-from-the-hip populist politico-economic proposals Trump spewed forth and incessantly Tweeted. (One is reminded faintly of the coastal Democratic elites making jokes about the “Beverly Hillbillies” in the White House when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 as a fiscal centrist.)

So whatever vulgarity after vulgarity was revealed about Mr. Trump’s past, however many iconoclastic middle fingers he raised to established electoral custom and decorum, a certain, ultimately decisive fraction of the voters responded with the hope that maybe this time, unlike earlier times, this forceful, determined outsider will, as it were, “make [their] America great again.”

That Secretary Clinton’s people ran an unbelievably incompetent campaign, in the instance, is astonishing. It is almost as if they paid no attention to actually developing conditions, and certainly the campaign, more or less a rerun of the disaster of the 2008 Democratic primaries, proved incapable of countering the massive negative message with which she had to deal; they just seemed to think that by ignoring it, it would, by comparison to Mr. Trump’s juicy negatives, go away and they would slide through. Since leaving the White House as First Lady in 2001, where she had served for the eight years of her husband’s presidency, Mrs. Clinton had put in essentially a lifetime’s worth of public service: junior Senator from the state of New York, Secretary of State throughout Mr. Obama’s first term. These were both tough, hands-on positions marked by both successes and failures.

In the strategic agonism that became the norm of the Republicans in Congress, from the outset in the early 1990s the party had early on gone after both Clintons about “Whitewater” in their Arkansas past, but eventually had failed, almost comically, at removing Bill Clinton from office after they impeached him. The shenanigans of special prosecutors, committee hearings, floor speeches, votes are useful nevertheless for maximizing embarrassment and, as in the McCarthy era, whatever the legal outcome, leaving a taint of “where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire” suspicion in respect of the target among a broad swath of the public.

When it was clear to the Republican leadership that then Secretary Clinton would, indeed, run again in 2016, the machinery geared up again, first with a “j’accuse!” on a tragic embassy breach during the civil unrest in Libya in which the American ambassador and others were targeted, and then on Mrs. Clinton’s use of nongovernment e-mail servers for State Department business. Caught in a position where to admit guilt or even error makes one look incompetent—hence not fit for even higher office—and to deny guilt or even error makes one seem to be “covering up” the reality, Mrs. Clinton seemed—certainly to the press—to be stonewalling, and had to be coerced by public opinion, little by little, incrementally to admit and take some responsibility for failings under her watch. She never dealt with such issues as huge speaking fees from financial interests, or her relationship to the Clinton Foundation’s funding, which, with elaborate media coverage, were added negative message material. And if Mr. Trump was a sexual predator, whom was Mrs. Clinton proposing to bring along to the White House once more, anyway?[412]

So the point is that there was a long—no interminable and incessant—campaign of negative messaging that in her early years in public life affected Mrs. Clinton as a collateral and more recently has targeted her personally in every possible way. Almost to the exclusion of anything else about her campaign, this is what day after day was successfully spread through a neutral and objective press, no matter that partisan accusations about then-Secretary Clinton’s private e-mail server flowed seamlessly into Russian hacking of DNC e-mails and into former Congressman Wiener’s laptop cache (the dramatic, public FBI revelation to queer the deal at the last minute). Politicians do not fare well when there is the noise, noise, noise of bad tidings surrounding them, no matter the truth of the matter; one need only think of poor Hubert Humphrey in 1968, whose convention and campaign appearances were incessantly disrupted by angry crowds on the political left creating noise, noise, noise that turned off a Vietnam War–era public yearning for a little peace [!] and quiet and caused them to turn for it to Richard Nixon.

So if, message-wise, Mrs. Clinton was a seriously damaged candidate from the get-go, what did the Clinton campaign offer in the way of countervailing positive message? Policy smarts, experience, professionalism, public service, strength of survival, to be sure, and—oh!—I’m a woman; but did it play well in the primaries let alone the final campaign?

In the primaries, recall, Senator Bernie Sanders, the kick-ass Brooklyn democratic socialist grandfather representing the idyllic state of Vermont (remember Dr. Howard Dean?) was whipping up crowds of resentful white-collar millennials and others feeling a progressive Bern about getting no respect the same way Mr. Trump was whipping up the folks whom Mrs. Clinton unfortunately appeared to term the “basket of deplorables.” (Recall Mr. Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion” moment, or Mr. Romney’s “forty-seven percent” gaffe.) Not only did Mrs. Clinton never recover from this—at Mr. Trump’s inauguration, his supporters in Washington were still referring to themselves this way—her campaign doubled down on trying to neutralize these forces by ever-so-slight policy moves—never adequately promoted and advertised—that through a haze of technical language focused attention on the issues that energized them. And that marshmallow campaign slogan, “Stronger together!”

In the most critical toss-up places, then, counties in the Rust Belt where both Sanders and Trump trounced their primary opponents (a critical, apparently ignored index of an emerging reality), the relatively absent Clinton campaign offered ultimately nothing beyond denigration of Trump (negative message) and first-woman-after-first-black (glass-ceiling positive message) in the way of motivation for voters seeking some sign of concern. As news organizations breathlessly tracked the energizing hoopla of his campaign, Mr. Trump continued to induce that “fired-up-and-ready-to-go” feeling, as had both then-Senator Obama in 2008 and Senator Sanders in the primaries. And that made all the difference: it broke the imagined dotted blue line of victory that would otherwise run with some few interruptions from Florida up the Atlantic Coast across the northeastern and north central rim and down the Pacific Coast.[413]


CBS News. 2017. “TRANSCRIPT: ABC News anchor David Muir interviews President Trump.” January 25. http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/transcript-abc-news-anchor-david-muir-interviews-president/story?id=45047602.

Hall, Kira, Donna M. Goldstein, and Matthew Bruce Ingram. 2016. “The hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, gesture, spectacle.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (2): 71–100.

Lempert, Michael, and Michael Silverstein. 2012. Creatures of politics: Media, message, and the American Presidency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Shoaps, Robin. 1999. “The many voices of Rush Limbaugh: The use of transposition in constructing a rhetoric of common sense.” Text 19 (3): 399–437.

Silverstein, Michael. 2003. Talking politics: The substance of style from Abe to “W.” Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.


Michael SILVERSTEIN, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Psychology at the University of Chicago, has focused on the poetics of politics, coauthoring (with Michael Lempert), among other works, Creatures of politics: Media, message, and the American presidency (Indiana University Press).

Michael Silverstein
Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago
1126 E. 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637-1580