Monday, October 10, 2016

A strange debate and finite space

Excuse me, but I spent six years at Berkeley working on my Ph.D., and never got around to taking any illicit drugs.  Seriously.  I've never even taken a puff from a regular, old cigarette, much less whatever makes the kids want to vote for Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson.  So, um, is this what it feels like to be on drugs?

Yeah, that was weird.  There are so many things that we could discuss.  A nominee is at odds with his running mate on Syria and Russia, and he says they don't talk.  He appears no more informed about Aleppo than Gary Johnson.  He promised to lock up his opponent if he wins.  The other nominee, faced with a question about two-facedness, defended herself with Lincoln, giving the line of the night to a guy who brags about sexual assault and invites Howard Stern to lust after his 17 year old daughter.  And that didn't come up, because nobody wants to talk about how creepy that is.

But really, does this matter?  No.  Why not?  Because Donald Trump said "pussy."  How much of the reaction to the tape is the violent content, and how much is the salaciousness of the word?  More of the latter than most would care to admit, but that isn't my point today.  My point today is that the tape is just too central to everyone's attention.  Nothing that happened last night was big enough to dislodge it from its central position in our political dialog.  Without the tape, could any of last night's events be major news?  Absolutely, but remember, this year, the normal rules don't apply.

Once that tape came out, it became the story.  Nothing else can replace it as the main story because everyone, even me, has a finite amount of time that can be devoted to politics.  Every second spent reading or watching something about the tape is time not spent reading or watching something about another topic.  Media outlets are similarly constrained.  Any space devoted to the tape is space not devoted to something else.  Resources, same.

This explains the nature of the Trump strategy now.  He has to find tactics so big that they can supplant the tape.  Call Clinton the devil.  Accuse Bill of rape.  Demand Clinton's arrest.  The point here is the extremity because only an extreme tactic can possibly make for a bigger story than pussygate.  Will it work?  Probably not, but it doesn't matter to Trump because if he doesn't try, he's toast anyway.

What's amusing here is that the normal, old rules of newspapers still apply, even in the internet era.  Just as newspapers are/were constrained by how much they could print, even in "cyberspace" (do the kids still say that?), there is an effective limit to how much of anything can get attention, even if there is no practical limit to how much can be out there somewhere.  Notice, for example, that Trump can't be bothered to know anything about Aleppo.  Just like Gary Johnson!  Why?  In Trump's case, laziness in incuriousness, but in the case of others, there are too many competing issues.  And as long as pussygate dominates the political landscape, last night's other spectacles are of minimal relevance.  The tape will remain the big thing until supplanted by something more interesting.  And Trump will try to make something else more interesting, which was what we saw last night.

Regardless, what we saw was a bizarre spectacle, leaving me to wonder-- do I finally know what it feels like to be on drugs?


  1. Bernstein has been calling Trump's campaign a "Red Queen race" for a long time now.

    Don't worry; I'm sure something WORSE than pussygate will come along.

    1. Satire requires exaggeration. Satire ceases to be possible when reality is beyond our capacity to exaggerate. I have no idea what is left.