W and Hillary at Nancy Reagan’s Funeral

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Trolls

Or, How We Got Here.

A few years ago, when the hate that laced our political discourse was heated, but by today’s standards, at what seems like a totally reasonable level, I used to always remind politically-enraged people of Carville and Matalin. James Carville would rage from the left. Mary Matalin would rage from right. Often times they’d share a screen and rage at each other.

And when it was done, they went home and banged. Yes, two leading voices of opposing parties not only fell in love, they got married.

The marriage, while a bit surprising to those who only knew the pair from televised debates or their careers working for presidents on opposite sides of the aisle, was never considered that big of a shock to political insiders.

But to the casual viewer, this was a coupling as sacrilegious as a match between the Montagues and the Capulets. It was as if the Crips and the Bloods joined forces to sell a line of multicolored bandanas.

Of course, it was nothing of the sort. The tossing of political dirt clods was intended for public consumption. Behind the scenes, political operatives and spokespeople often have friendships and romances across political lines. Less often today than a few years ago, but it still happens.

Why? Because part of politics is a show. Part of being an advocate is never giving an inch in public. The rage we see coming from the professionals on television and the Internet is part of a grand messaging scheme intended to increase interest in the campaign, drive turnout, and deliver money into the pockets of everyone from the operatives to the cable networks.

But something went wrong.

The viewers stopped realizing they were watching a show. They acted like they were watching reality TV (if reality TV were real). When the pundits went home and dropped their arguments — and their pants — the viewers went online to carry on the rage. What was faux for the pundits was entirely real for the viewers.

That was bad news for democracy, but it was really good news for viewership, turnout, etc. So, as long as cameras were rolling, the hate speech continued. And it got worse and worse.

And before you knew it, some of the viewers who came of age during the trash-talk era decided to run for office. The pundits and the career politicians all laughed over drinks because, seriously, what kind of a crazy person would vote for these other crazy people?

The answer: The crazy people who became crazy watching all that craziness everyone was hurling at each other in the media.

Add a few billion bucks of unregulated financial support, and boom, the inmates are running the asylum.

But back up a second. It was all a show. Take a look at the photo of Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush from Nancy Reagan’s funeral.

This photo is a brief glimpse of reality. Two people who have dedicated their adult lives to serving their country. Are they perfect? No. Do I agree with both of them equally? Definitely not. But does this photo surprise me?


But we all know such an image will not only surprise, but sicken millions of Americans. On the Left, Dems will wonder how Hillary can hug the enemy, and on the Right, seriously, would heads exploding surprise anyone?

So what do we do? How do we get back to a political landscape that features honest differences, without the wanton rage and hatred?

It will be tough. This has been going on for decades. Mitt Romney’s effort to reel in the rabid wing of the GOP with a single speech was an almost comical effort. “Yes, we’ve been riling you up for three decades, but now that you’ve gone over the line, let’s relax and cool things off a bit, OK guys?”

The politicians told their followers to burn the boats. Then, a few years later, they seem surprised that all boats are gone.

The voters believed it. They thought the hate was serious. They didn’t realize the fight wasn’t real. It reminds me of the words of Apollo Creed’s trainer in the first Rocky: “He doesn’t know it’s a damn show!”

The voters don’t know it was a damn show. And a lot of them probably think that the supportive hug in the photo is either photoshopped or cause for a revolution.

The politicians and pundits can go home and fuck. But the electorate is just fucked.

Dave Pell writes NextDraft. He is the Algorithm.