“Game Change” Becomes a Harbinger in Hindsight

“ There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ ”

- Isaac Asimov

If every day you say it’s going to rain, eventually you’re going to be right. If you call every single coup a prelude to WW3, eventually you’ll be right. Basically what I’m saying is that predicting the future is easy, it’s just not so easy to be specific about the time. Predicting that a boom will be followed by a bust is the easiest work of prophetry imaginable, but actually buying and selling based on that divine wisdom is a bit harder. The run-up to the 2016 US presidential election had people predicting that Hillary was obviously going to win because the system is rigged in her favour, and also that Trump was obviously going to win because Hillary was so evil, or both. Hooray, everybody gets to be right about everything, politics is easy.

I get sick of my own voice sometimes because I know how much I talk and I know how little I know. And I know people listen to me. Literally people I haven’t talked to in years sometimes stop me in the street and tell me how much they love reading my thoughts on facebook. It’s a little intimidating. Only once or twice has one of these people has the fortune to find me in an actual political debate and had their heart broken by how much less clever I am when I haven’t got copy and paste at my disposal. And I’m still pretty clever, I’ve had too many people tell me so for me to ever believe otherwise. But the first step to truly being able to put your knowledge to use is to make peace with how ignorant you are. Very often an article I post to facebook is one that I have not read, that I may never read, but that I aspire to and that I think you ought to aspire to read too. I happen to know that the book most English-speaking people pretend to have read is George Orwell’s 1984. This is not useful information in the specific but it handily expresses a broader truth, that stupid people rather see themselves as temporarily confused geniuses.

“Game Change” came out in 2012. This is not something I knew off the top of my head, I had to look it up. I also had to look up that the book it’s based on came out in 2010 and was written by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. I didn’t bother typing those names, I copy-pasted them from the wikipedia article. “Game Change” is a HBO film about the John McCain/Sarah Palin ticket from the 2008 US presidential election, was directed by Jay Roach, and stars Julianne Moore as Palin and Ed Harris as McCain. That I did know. I also knew that Woody Harrelson plays somebody important but specifically who eluded me, turns out it’s Steven Schmidt, McCain’s campaign strategist.

Roach and writer Danny Strong had previously made “Recount”, also for HBO, concerning the confusion surrounding the ballots of the 2000 Bush/Gore election. After not only a year like 2016 but an election year that quite literally seems to have lasted two years, I, and I expect a lot of other people who can’t tell the difference between reality and fiction, have been wondering what kind of movie the lead-up to the Trump election will make. And will Jay Roach be the one to make it once again? Roach has had his biggest financial successes making mass-market comedies such as Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers trilogy, but is increasingly gaining prestige as a political dramatist after Recount, Game Change, Trumbo and All The Way, and is currently directing Felt, starring Liam Neeson as Mark Felt, better known to history as Deep Throat. It’s not like he’d be short on material here, I mean if anything the real question is where do you begin? Well, if you really wanted to tell a story that answers the question “How did Donald Trump get elected President of the United States?” the best place to start is probably, funnily enough, Sarah Palin.

The American experiment has been going down some very strange roads in the last few decades. My political awareness only stretches back as far as 9/11 but this pattern probably goes back as far as Eisenhower and the cold war, where America needed to rebuild itself in a specifically anti-communist identity. Since then the republicans have gradually dug themselves into a bunker of ideologies as diverse as Christian creationism, denial of abortion rights, denial of gay and trans rights, protection of white people, anti-islam, anti-atheism, promotion of unmonitored gun ownership and denial of climate change. The Obama administration and the advent of the online echo-chamber saw this bunker dug ever further in, the conservative media becoming almost cult-like under the guidance of people like Roger Ailes, Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Steve Bannon and Alex Jones. This clear, entrenched right/wrong division on issues as simple as scientific fact has made it ever harder to navigate a democratic solution to the higher non-partisan political issues such as interventionist warfare, fuel resources, surveillance, transparency, corporate personhood, nuclear disarmament, renewable energy and regulated capitalism. While it might be difficult to explain the political merits of Hillary Clinton to somebody living in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia or Palestine, the fact that Donald Trump was deemed not just an acceptable alternative to Hillary but specifically the best republican for the job speaks volumes about the abomination right-wing America has become.

But not all republicans. Much like how Sam Pekinpah could only show the unslanted truth about warfare in Cross of Iron by telling a story about good Germans, Roach and Strong snapshot the American political media landscape of the ’00s by telling a story about good republicans. While specific issues such as abortion, creationism and the war on terror are namechecked as part of the furniture, the film makes clear its intention is not to eviscerate the right wing but to show you that fundamentally these are not bad people, and they often find themselves just as disgusted with politics as you. Ed Harris portrays John McCain as a man who maybe wouldn’t have been all that bad as a president if he weren’t inheriting the Bush wars, a man with an honest heart and a good head on his shoulders. They don’t delve into the specifics of his policies but present him as having the willpower to go against his own party on issues like stem cell research, as being repulsed by the pettiness that 24 hour news brings out of people, and as detesting relying on racist voters to prop up a platform. “I want to run a campaign my kids can be proud of”. And the film opens with him being incredibly unpopular in the right wing press. He rings up his friend Steven Schmidt and says “They fuckin’ hate me Steve.” He convinces Schmidt to come on board as his strategist, Schmidt turns McCain’s campaign around and soon enough they’ve secured the republican ticket. But try as he might, he hasn’t got nearly the hype that democrat candidate Barack Obama has.

As Steven Schmidt intones: “A man of no accomplishment has become the biggest celebrity in the world and you want to pull him down. What we need to do is ask the American people a very simple question: do you want a statesman to be your next president… or do you want a celebrity?” Well I guess we know the answer to that now, don’t we Stevie-boy?

They soon realise that their choice of VP will decide the entire tone of the rest of their campaign. McCain wants Joe Lieberman, a Jewish democrat who ran as Al Gore’s VP in 2000, thinking that this will send a statement that both major parties can work together, that Americans are as above anti-semitism as they are above racism. But the conservative press get wind of it and destroy the idea utterly. Now they need to not only compete with Obama on column inches but also win back the conservative base, which means they’re going to need to change the game. So they go looking for a woman.

The film has an unromantic view of the grunt work of politics, a huge number of characters pop in and out of the story whose job is just doing research, crunching numbers, summarising data, relaying press statements. The campaign manager just types the few major female politicians he can name into google like a kid researching their big history project. After a few duds the name “Sarah Palin” occurs to him. And it seems to be a winner, a sure thing even. She’s charismatic, pretty, confident, a beacon of patriotism and family values, a gun owner and a Christian, with a track record of getting things done during her tenure as governor of Alaska. Sure she’s a staunchly pro-life creationist but so long as she’s willing to compromise those values when it’s politically expedient she should make a great VP. And within five days they’ve gone from having never heard of her to making her potentially the second-in-command of the most powerful country in the world.

Steven Schmidt is portrayed by Harrelson as a savvy political operative, his rounds in the talking head arena a ruthless push to change the direction of international conversation. His personal feelings about Sarah Palin specifically are not part of the job, he works for the republican party, he has to get John McCain elected, and that means getting people to trust Sarah Palin so that’s what he goes and does. Same goes for communications director Nicolle Wallace, played by the wonderful Sarah Paulson. As just how little Palin knows becomes evident, Wallace finds herself reduced to a political babysitter giving Palin phonetic lessons on global politics. Though that’s only a few step below what her job entails anyway, Schmidt and Wallace’s are very clearly there to diplomatically mould McCain into a nice digestible product, making him feel like the right decisions were his idea.

Harris’ McCain is an impatient stiff-jointed grandpa who’s still got the fighting, spirit of a man a third of his age and swears constantly. McCain in this film wants no part in the horrendous misinformation campaigns against Barack Obama, having had to endure such slander himself in past elections, including attacks on his adopted Bangladeshi daughter. “There is a dark side to American populism. Some people win elections by tapping into it. I’m not one of those people.” But he puts his toe in the water and soon finds himself up to his neck in supporters yelling “he’s a socialist!” “he’s a terrorist!” “he’s a muslim!” “send him back to Africa!” and struggles to course-correct. John McCain was a long-distance right-winger, but you get the impression here that if he was as far right as it got, maybe the right wing wouldn’t be so bad. In a scene which now seems like an absolute state of the union regarding the republican party, Schmidt, campaign manager Rick Davis and lead speech writer Mark Salter discuss the election which they now know they won’t win, for many reasons of which Palin was just one. We get lines like “It wasn’t a campaign, it was a… a bad reality show.”

Schmidt: If we did win, do feel comfortable with President Palin? 
Davis: Why not, then we woulda won! 
Salter: Do you know what Dick Cheney said when he found we’d picked her? He said we made a reckless choice. When you lose the moral high ground to Dick Cheney it’s time to rethink your entire life.

It’s an incredible scene knowing now how soon it would pay off in real life, as we discovered exactly how high the limit on the GOPs moral adjustments can go. Steven Schmidt is a gay rights ally who now contributes to the left-leaning news channel MSNBC, as does Nicolle Wallace, but he’s still active with the republicans and reports on them with neither malice nor jingo nor romance.

Danny Strong’s script does its best to cram in as many smaller events as as possible, but can’t find a place for everything. Palin’s personal appearance on SNL is left unmentioned, as is the rush to beef up her wikipedia page in advance of her introduction to the public. But the script is fantastic in its portrait of Sarah Palin. While her public persona is now one of a rambling low-information demagogue who will do anything for attention, the film gives her and her family the moments of dignity they deserve, presenting them as decent Christian people without any condescension. The red flags are subtle and intermittent. Neither the heads of the campaign nor the heads of the republican party think to ask her or the people she’s worked with too many probing questions beyond those basic republican-core issues. And in those core issues she seems to be a true republican through-and-through. The mistake, as we at one point thought we knew, was assuming that those core republican values are all you need.

Julianne Moore puts a huge amount of life into Palin. Never sinking into parody or impersonation, Moore finds a woman who just wanted to do some good and was overwhelmed by an avalanche of scrutiny for her troubles. Set aside those core republican values for a moment and you gradually accept that Sarah Palin is someone very similar to you and me, by which I mean she is completely unqualified to be president of the United States, or any other country for that matter. While she may, as presented here, be a particularly special case (according to this film she though Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, thought the Queen of England was the head of the British government and needed even the broader details of World War II spelled out to her by foreign policy specialists… Jesus, they elected this woman governor of an entire state) you certainly know a lot of people like this. People who think the information they lack just doesn’t matter all that much, that they can pick and choose facts. People who think the decades of political experience and knowledge of someone like Hillary Clinton means nothing at all. People who are reading this right now while thinking “Oh, I know someone like that”. Because politics is so easy.

What we remember from the Palin campaign is the ridicule. We remember the dumb quotes, the Tina Fey impression, we remember laughing. What we’ve forgotten, and what Game Change reminds us of, is how many people weren’t laughing. Millions of people looked at Sarah Palin and saw themselves. Parents of children with disabilities thought “finally, a politician who gets it”. She was a hero to the small-government pundits and the science-is-just-an-opinion set. Palin knew how to work a crowd, she still does, she became a mascot of the far-right, the kind of person who knows how to pretend she’s read Atlas Shrugged. Enough people still take her seriously that Donald Trump brought her on stage as a supporter at one of his rallies in the republican primaries, which ensured that he was the top story of the day yet again. If it hadn’t been for the financial crisis the 2008 election would’ve been a lot closer than people like to admit. Sure, Palin didn’t know much, but do you know how few people cared? A fuckton of people did not care. They didn’t care that she couldn’t name a newspaper she reads, they didn’t care that she contradicted herself, they didn’t care how much she was clearly bluffing, they didn’t care about Tina Fey, they didn’t care about any of it. They looked from a candidate who understood government and gave clear and thought-through answers to a candidate who just made shit up on the spot, and saw no difference. If Twitter had been as big in 2008 as it is now, how sure are you McCain/Palin wouldn’t have made it to the white house?

Clinton losing the election has been a wake-up call to the political ignorance of the American public. Regardless of the left or the right of it, or new blood versus experience, or man versus woman, or midlands versus coast, or county vs city, or electoral college versus popular vote, regardless of even what a fucking scumbag he is, somebody just so blatantly, clearly, obviously unqualified to be president as Donald Trump is just not supposed to get voted for. But 45% of the popular vote went to McCain/Palin. Nearly 60,000,000 people. Even Nicolle Wallace couldn’t rationalise voting for John McCain, couldn’t put Sarah Palin in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building one heartbeat away from the presidency (once again, I googled that, I do not have the geography of The White House memorised). Why wasn’t that the wake-up call. Why were those sixty million votes brushed aside as a fluke? Why was this seen as US citizens rationalising a strategic vote rather than what we now know it was: simply ignoring inconvenient facts? How about if Palin ran in 2024, based on what you know now, do you think she’d be president? I mean against any candidate, any fucking candidate at all, octogenarian Bernie Sanders, septuagenarian Elizabeth Warren, ageless block of granite Hillary Clinton, righteous obelisk of proletariat fury Jon Stewart, renowned character actress Margo Martindale, in the United States presidential election as it currently exists, do you think anybody would beat Sarah Palin in a fair fight?

First time around Palin was driven into bouts of near-catatonia by the onslaught of information, attention and pressure. Second time around I think she’d be ready for it. After all these years balancing her media career with raising her kids and brushing off the ridicule of the smuggest satirists NY and LA have to offer, Palin has almost as much media savvy as Trump. She might not quite have as much willingness to manipulate the craven bloodthirsty xenophobia at the heart of the American psyche, but after President Trump she’d almost be seen as a moderate. Because of all the things Sarah Palin learned running for Vice President, the most significant is that so long as you speak with confidence people will believe literally anything you say to them. You can tell lies and people will believe because they want to believe, it feels good to believe. Politicians have known this forever, but Palin was the American who discovered you can do this while people are actively fact-checking you 100% of the news cycle and it will still work, the truth will just vanish like vapour. Just tell the lie again and the crowd still cheers. Say the fact-checkers are lying, they cheer even louder. Your reputation is only ruined with the people who were never going to support you anyway. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense or if it’s demonstrably untrue, none of us are as stupid as all of us.

The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Year is “post-truth”. Donald Trump was caught again and again and again lying his head off. Not even regular lies. Not “Read my lips: No new taxes” lies. Not “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” lies. Not “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” lies. Not “We’re gonna lead by shutting down Guantanamo and restoring Habeus Corpus” lies. (I googled all of those except the sex one, see if you can spot which one wasn’t actually by a president). Full on up-is-down, black-is-white lies, lies that could’ve been corrected on the spot in-studio with a VDU screen, wi-fi connection and the guts to say “Actually no”. Donald Trump was caught on camera openly promising war crimes, saying Russia haven’t invaded Ukraine, saying there’s no drought in California, saying global warming was invented by the Chinese, saying he never said that global warming was invented by the Chinese, saying he doesn’t know anything about the Ku Klux Klan, saying that he wanted to use nuclear warheads more often, calling Mexicans rapists, suggesting Muslims be put on a government registry, saying he was going to reverse gay marriage, saying he’s very pro-LGBT, saying he was going to build a nonsense-expensive wall that will do nothing and cost nothing, suggesting his political opponent get assassinated, cheering on lynch mobs at his rallies, saying he was going to censor the press, bragging about not paying taxes, making up vicious lies about his opponents’ families, and saying when you’re famous you get to sexually assault women with impunity, all while on trial for raping a child. That’s still just what I remember off the top of my head without googling, and that’s still without taking the character witnesses calling a misogynist, racist, lying, thieving, raping bully into account. And a quarter of the United States either voted for him because of this, or decided that none of it mattered. They preferred all of that not only to Hillary Clinton but to Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and John Kasich and Ben Carson and Jeb Bush. And for all of their weaknesses as candidates, don’t you think or hope that at a majority of people would’ve been able to look at them and go “Well, at least they’re not currently on trial for raping a thirteen-year-old.”

A month prior to the 2016 election Steven Schmidt said on NBC, clearly glad that it was almost over and that Trump had finally, finally said enough repugnant things that nobody in their right mind could, possibly, POSSIBLY vote for him “A president of the United States who has no idea what he’s talking about from a policy perspective, who lacks the requisite dignity required of someone who wishes to be the head of state of the government of the United States, and someone who lacks the capacity to be the commander in chief of the most powerful military and the world’s most potent nuclear arsenal, that’s what you’ll see tonight. When we look at this, when we look at where this race is today, the presidential race is effectively over, Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the 45th president of the United States. Chuck Shumer will be majority leader of the United States, and the only question that’s still up in the air is how close the democrats will come to retaking the house majority. What this exposes though is much deeper, it goes to the republican party as an institution. This candidacy, the magnitude of its disgrace to the country is almost impossible I think to articulate. It has exposed the intellectual rot in the republican party. It has exposed at a massive level the hypocrisy, the modern-day money-lenders in the temple like Jerry Falwell Jr. And so, this party, to go forward and to represent a conservative vision for America, has great soul-searching to do. And we’ve seen the danger of all these candidates, over the last year these candidates who have repeatedly put their party ahead of their country, denying what is so obviously clear to anybody who’s watching about his complete and total manifest unfitness for this office.”

And Steven Schmidt, just like Nate Silver, and Hillary Clinton and, lets-be-fucking-honest, just like Donald Trump, was completely taken by surprise by how America would vote. And some people said Bernie Sanders would’ve won, something which is said with spectacularly unearned confidence. But the hindsight here teaches us that it’s far more possible than we first would have reasoned. Socialist might be a dirty word in some areas of America, but is it worse than tax-dodging silver-spoon rapist? Socialist Sanders wouldn’t have won in all fifty states, but could he have won 26 of them? The reason he wasn’t the democratic nominee is not that Hillary “stole” the election, but because Hillary has been working closely within the democratic party for nearly four decades, unlike outsider Bernie. The democratic establishment didn’t just trust her, they liked her, they were rooting for her, they knew that she knew more than them, they respected their own ignorance. For the democratic core Hillary’s presidency was a narrative that had been brewing for a generation, her eight years as secretary of state making her possibly the single most present American voice at the executive global level. The incredible popularity of the Obama administration, part II. Bernie’s bid was simply unwelcome, the hype had been building too long. But the hype was only with those who gave a damn about social progress and with the so-called “neoliberal elite”. Sanders appeals far more to knee-jerk, tell-me-I’m-important infantile sensibilities. The tone of the Sanders campaign was low enough to get numerous accusations of misogyny and bullying, and there was sufficient political illiteracy that many of them called it an elitist conspiracy that only people registered with the democratic party were allowed to vote in the primary election of the democratic party. If you’re an organisation looking for political savvy on a global stage, that’s not what you want. And if you’re going to lose votes left right and centre for being a proud socialist, that’s also not what you want.

But we seem to have forgotten how many people, left and right, just don’t have a fucking clue what socialism is. The republicans being shameless defenders of hateful idiocy doesn’t make you a legion of Solomons. Just because you’re not afraid of muslims doesn’t mean you even know what Islam is. Just because believe climate change is real doesn’t make you qualified to say what to do about it. If Sanders had won it would be because of the people who want to “change the system” without any internalised knowledge whatsoever as to what the system even involves, the people who look at money and only see a shady conspiracy. The comedian/commentator Jonathan Pie thinks Bernie would’ve won. But he also thinks Hillary cheated when debating Trump by getting the questions in advance, despite the fact that she didn’t, the sources of this claim made it up and Jonathan Pie never fact-checked properly. Most people don’t. I usually don’t. And this isn’t just an American problem, this is worldwide. After Brexit passed, which was put to a public vote because what member of the voting public hasn’t memorised the fucking history of the EU, and the number one Google search became “What does the EU do,” have you really convinced yourself that all of those searches were from people who voted leave?

Game Change is not a documentary, but has been praised by Schmidt and Wallace as being incredibly accurate. Sarah Palin didn’t like it. John McCain didn’t watch it.

One way in which Game Change now feels like a relic is in a scene where McCain and Lieberman laugh their heads off at a youtube video of democrat hopeful John Edwards getting his hair and makeup done with a backing track of I Feel Pretty. Remember the days when a single joke could sink a politician’s credibility overnight? That was the last time that happened. 2008. Now when that happens we call it propaganda and get on with our day. We call everything propaganda. We call every fact we don’t like propaganda, and share every appealing lie.

We are all Sarah Palin.

We have been for years.

And by the time we realised it we were already Donald Trump.

“This time may be different. Trump was not a normal candidate, the transition is not a normal transition, and this will probably not be a normal administration. The president-elect is surrounding himself with mediocrities whose chief qualification seems to be unquestioning loyalty. He gets credit for becoming a statesman when he says something any newly elected president might say (“I very much look forward to dealing with the president in the future”) — and then reverts to tweeting against demonstrators and the New York Times. By all accounts, his ignorance, and that of his entourage, about the executive branch is fathomless. It’s not even clear that he accepts that he should live in the White House rather than in his gilt-smeared penthouse in New York.”

- Eliot A Cohen

“You ready for peace through strength and that Reagan-ous posture that would tell any enemy, ‘Uh uh, we’re America, so we win, you lose!’ ”

- Sarah Palin