Back in April of 2011, I was upset when President Obama released his long-form birth certificate in response to demands from one Donald Trump. I thought it was a mistake by Obama, and I said so at the time.
My thinking at the time was that it elevated Trump to Obama’s level–it made it seem like the President had to take what Trump said seriously.
This bothered me because it reminded me of something I read in the book Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein. Perlstein documents how Richard Nixon continually badgered then-President Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, until Johnson finally responded to Nixon’s criticisms. By doing so, Johnson unwittingly elevated Nixon to appear as the “leader of the opposition”. He made Nixon seem as though he was on a par with the office of the President.
This was part of Nixon’s plan. It was part of how he made his famous political comeback from humiliated has-been in 1962 to President in 1968. It’s always stuck with me, and so whenever I see some would-be Presidential candidate angling to get the President to react to criticism, I automatically think of it.
When I mentioned this in 2011, my friends said I was paranoid, and laughed at the idea that Trump would ever be taken seriously. He was a joke, as shown when President Obama roasted him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
My friends thought this was the ultimate humiliation for Trump. He’d become a laughingstock.
Well, my friends aren’t laughing any more.
I derive no pleasure from this, but it does appear that Trump was using the birth-certificate issue as a proof of concept for his future campaign: say outrageous stuff so the press covers it, then keep harping on it to draw more followers to your “cause”, and then before you know it, some pretty big people start responding to you. And now, the headlines all say “President responds to Trump”.
Once his demands for the birth certificate were met, Trump realized that the press was ripe to be used for his unorthodox quest for political power. But I think he also knew he would stand no chance against a popular and charismatic sitting President in 2012. Hence his decision to delay until now.
The birth-certificate thing was silly and stupid and frivolous and ultimately the conspiracy theorists were proven wrong. But that wasn’t the main takeaway from it. The main takeaway was that Donald Trump asked for something, and the President gave it to him. This emboldened Trump to start trying to see just what else he could get out of the political system.
Supporters of both Presidential candidates will often say the opponent is “just out for power”, or “doesn’t care about principles–they just want more power”. The Republicans constantly say Clinton is so corrupt, and involved in so many scandals, that it shows she just wants power and will stop at nothing to get it.
Democrats say that Trump is trying to gain the powers of the Presidency to satisfy his own ego, and that his willingness to lie, scream and bully his way into office reveals him as a power-hungry maniac.
If you asked Clinton if she wants power, she would probably say no, she wants to “bring us together” and “help people”. If you asked Trump the same question, he would probably say no, he just wants to “fix things” and “make America great again”.
In politics, it works like this: “I want to help people and solve problems. They are power-hungry monsters.”
The truth is, both of them want power. How do I know this? Because there is no other reason to want to be President. Actually, I imagine that being President is fairly miserable, since you can’t go anywhere or do anything on your own, and you and your family live under constant threat. The reward for all that is the power.
“Power” is just the ability to get things done–to accomplish meaningful change. But it has a negative connotation. Nobody gets mad when someone says “I want to make a difference in the world”, but they do if someone says “I want power”. And yet, they are the same thing. Power = ability to make a difference.
The real question is “what will someone do with power once they have it?” That’s the important part. To figure that out, you have to study the candidates’ policies, background and statements. But all politicians try to sidestep this by using the rhetorical maneuver that condemns their opponent for the simple fact they are seeking office.
For the record: Clinton seems likely to use Presidential power in much the same way that both her husband and Barack Obama did as President. A Clinton administration would be close to a third term of Obama. Trump, on the other hand, seems very impulse-driven and knee-jerk. If he had power, he would probably do whatever struck him as a good idea at any given moment.
In the words of Prince Feisal in the movie Lawrence of Arabia: “You may judge which is more reliable”.
The most effective part of Trump’s speech was a brief, apparently ad-libbed line. The crowd had begun chanting “lock her up”, a phrase they had used all week and which many commentators felt crossed the line from heated rhetoric into a promise to jail political opponents, in the style of a third-world dictator. (Or Woodrow Wilson)
But Trump, for once, didn’t egg the crowd on, but instead pulled them back. “Let’s defeat her in November” he said, in a tone of friendly correction.
This was a mix of showman Trump–guy who can play the crowd–and politician Trump, who can remain within the bounds of political propriety. He used his rapport with the angry mob to calm, not to incite.
It reminded me of one time in ’08 when Obama was speaking about McCain and the crowd started booing McCain’s name. Obama quickly said “You don’t need to boo, you just need to vote.” It made him seem very (dare I say it?) classy and professional about the whole thing.
Granted, Trump has many more inappropriate remarks to make up for than Obama did at this point–but still, he showed he can at least momentarily maintain discipline and not give in to the blind rage of his cheering base. Whether he can do that over a long period remains to be seen. My bet is he can’t.
But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within.
–Edgar Allen Poe. The Masque of the Red Death. 1842.
“Reactivity”. “Choice and consequences”. “Influence”. These are the watchwords for the RPGs designed by Chris Avellone.
For example, one of the major features of Alpha Protocol (2010) was the branching path structure of its story, depending on what the player chose to do. The world of Alpha Protocol reacted to the player’s choices, making it feel like they were really changing the story as they played.
More than just being a quirk of game mechanic design, this philosophy permeates the Avellone-led Black Isle/Obsidian RPGs in surprising ways. It goes beyond just being a player ego-stroking mechanism into every aspect of the games.
Planescape: Torment‘s protagonist can influence the story, setting and other characters in countless ways, and while this in itself makes for an interesting game, the mechanic complements the theme of the story: that belief can influence reality itself. Musings on self-fulfilling prophecies and consensus reality are integrated with the structure of the game.
If video games are power fantasies, designed to make players feel like they can impact the world, then these RPGs are both archetypal examples and subtly subversive at the same time. While they allow the player to make all manner of changes to the game world, they also ask the player to reflect on the consequences of their actions.
To see how this approach differs from other RPGs, consider the popular but controversial Mass Effect 3, the original endings of which prompted criticism that none of the player’s choices really mattered. Defenders of the game replied that this was the story BioWare had wanted to tell, and so it should be accepted by the players as such.
It is a delicate balance, but in a medium defined by user input, the experience is most satisfying if the need to tell a story is balanced with giving the player choice in how it unfolds–if the story is the player’s story, and the player is not simply a bystander.
In many games, the player is to the game’s plot as Indiana Jones is to Raiders of the Lost Ark. They are at best just there to perform the requisite tasks to fulfill the writer’s story. Not so with Planescape/KotOR II/Alpha Protocol–in these, the player is the story.
Perhaps the most famous of Avellone’s characters is the enigmatic Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. She embodies the philosophy of player choice more so than any other single character. (Her avowed hatred of the predestination element of the Force could be interpreted as opposition to the “railroading” so common in games.)
Kreia is seemingly amoral, allied with neither the Jedi nor the Sith, but uses both to achieve her goals. To gain influence with her, the Jedi Exile (the player’s character) must show that they can make logical choices consistent with furthering their own long-term goals–in other words, that they understand choice and consequence. Kreia doesn’t care if you are good or evil–just so long as you know what you are doing and can strategize to make it happen.
In this way, the game mechanics, characters and story are all fully integrated. The mechanics reinforce the characters who reinforce the theme. This level of coherence is what produces a truly satisfying experience. When game mechanics clash with the theme or the story, the player feels subconsciously confused.
Since games, unlike other art forms, rely on user input to tell the story, it only makes sense to center them around the user’s input in every respect. If thematic coherence is what makes Art great, the greatest games should surely be built around the idea of player choice.
Cato the Elder was a Roman Statesman during the Punic wars. (“Punic” means “Carthaginian” for reasons explained here.) Cato would end all his speeches with the phrase “Carthago delenda est”, or some variant of it, which means “Carthage must be destroyed!” Even if his speech was otherwise unrelated to Carthage, he would still say that by way of closing.
A few months ago, someone pointed out to me that this phrase was “the first hashtag”. I realized she was exactly right, and quickly took to Twitter to tell everyone I knew there who would get it.
It’s a great point. This is exactly the right use of a rhetorical device. I hate to say it, but one of Donald Trump’s most successful Twitter tactics is his use of the hashtag #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Of course, he stole that slogan from Reagan, so he can’t get full credit. But Reagan didn’t repeat it the way Trump does, and repetition is one of the oldest and most successful rhetorical tactics. The fact that Trump has access to Twitter just means his audience is that much bigger.
Imagine how Cato the Elder would have use Twitter if he’d had it: everything would have the hashtag #CarthagoDelendaEst. It would look good, it’s simple, and it communicates his point clearly and concisely. Social media makes it possible to broadcast political slogans to millions of people, but the logic behind them is the same as it ever was.
It just goes to show you that when it comes to political rhetoric, some things never change.
About ten years ago, I wrote a comic opera adaptation of the Star Wars movies, with songs set to Gilbert and Sullivan tunes. It was just an exercise in songwriting that I did for fun, but it definitely helped me learn how to write a decent rhyme.
Re-reading it now, I see most of my lyrics were pretty bad–although to be fair to myself, few lyricists can ever hope to match the great W.S. Gilbert.
But there were a few songs I wrote that were pretty decent. For instance, this adaptation of the meadow scene from Attack of the Clones, in which Anakin explains his dictatorial political philosophy to Padme. It’s set to the tune of “Were I a King” from The Grand Duke.
ANAKIN: Were I in charge, in very truth,
And yet had kept my health and youth,
In spite of my ascension;
To keep us peaceful, keep us strong–
And make these blessings last for long–
I would request the voting throng
All their concerns to mention.
To some big council they would go
And voice with elocution,
Their little problems all, and lo!
They would find a solution!
The men who would be to this council elected,
Would all by popular vote be selected–
And if they all did what they said on campaign,
They could run for office again!
CHORUS: Oh, the men who would be etc.
ANAKIN: And if councilmen should disagree
The problem would then come to me–
And I’d make the decision!
One side may say to “Cut the tax!”
The other says “Prevent attacks!”–
Unlike our current plan that lacks
An executive with vision–
Both sides would have to go to me,
And I’d make ’em see reason!
And if they still would disagree–
I’d have them shot for treason!
Oh, the man who can mold a political sphere
Completely bereft of corruption or fear,
Can govern and rule, with of his brains a tenth
Intelligent life–and possibly Ennth!