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Playing With The Clock’s Hands—Obama, Trump, Hillary, Biden

In 2018 Californians passed the vote on Prop 7, which would enable the legislature to do away with the biannual changing of clocks for daylight saving time. Those in favor ranged from voters who were annoyed by the inconvenience of adjusting their home appliances to the many cardiologists and researchers who had observed spikes in heart attacks, strokes, and car crashes correlated with this biannual change. Though Prop 7 initially passed, it later got shot down at the committee level in 2020. Thus, Californians today remain in an arguably archaic practice of changing their clocks, despite the evidence of its hazards.

At the national scale in the 2020 Presidential Election, it seemed the nominees were rallying voters around that same issue — preserving a practice of pushing the clock’s hands backward, despite the long-term risks it might yield. Though unlike California’s Prop 7 vote in 2018, voters were offered no alternative in this election. Both the Republican and Democrat candidates were in favor of keeping the nation’s gaze on the past, of turning their clocks backward. The incumbent, Trump, could no longer rally as a novel outside-challenger. His slogan went from “Make America Great Again” — already a message grounding voters in the past — to “Keep America Great” — an imperative about preserving that past-fixation. Whereas Biden meanwhile huddled around “Build Back Better”, a phrase nearly synonymous with Trump’s first campaign slogan in its urge to bring the past back in the present — why not instead, for example, “Build A New America”? Both of these septuagenarians were motioning over their shoulder to something vague that came before, like grandparents recollecting a half-remembered memory.

What’s peculiar here is not just that both parties were using essentially the same campaign message to direct people into the past in a time when it seemed the country needed something new instead of old, but more, that both of these campaign slogans were lifted directly from the respective parties’ pasts. MAGA had been used by several politicians dating back to 1940 and was most famously featured as Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan in the 1980 presidential race. While BBB is a UN crisis response framework that former DNC president Bill Clinton used in his poorly executed attempt to aid Haiti in the late 2000s onward. Why is it that the US’s two parties in power are desperately hell-bent on keeping voters in the past—and during such urgent, nationwide climates no less? More, why are they both doing so with their own parties’ past language, are they fresh out of ideas? Why the avoidance of the present and future, and the persistence on turning the clocks’ hands backward? An investigation into the past and the temporal rhetoric that these parties have employed over recent presidential races may provide us with some answers.

In 2009, the late, great Mark Fisher opened his now contemporary classic, Capitalist Realism, with a quote attributed to both Fredric James and Slavoj Žižek, which states that “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” The remainder of Fisher’s text goes on to highlight the idea that this difficulty to conceive of capitalism’s demise is due to its widespread hegemony; there are no pervasively succeeding alternatives in the present, in large part due to a failure of the Left’s imagination. Capitalism has already “won.” Seventeen years prior to Fisher’s text, American political economist, Francis Fukuyama, would have agreed with this sentiment. In 1992’s The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama takes a Hegelian view of humanity’s sociocultural evolution over time, seeing it as a progressing arc of history that builds upon itself through a perpetual synthesis of the past with the present. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89, Fukuyama assessed that capitalism’s liberal democracy and neoliberal market principals must surely be the “end of history” — the end of this long, synthesizing, sociocultural evolution over time — given that the Cold War’s conclusion had indicated that capitalism’s only key competitors at the time, fascism and communism, had been foreseeably conquered.

One year following Fukuyama’s now-famous statement — which the author himself would later walk back — the Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida came out with some further thinking on all of this talk about “the end of history.” In 1993’s Specters of Marx, Derrida coined the term hauntology, a portmanteau of haunting and the French pronunciation of ontology. He used this term in his suggestion that previous cultural histories, namely Marxism — even if allegedly “dead” or “defeated” — do not disappear, but instead, like a ghost, they revisit in the present. From this view, the cultural past and its memories of unfulfilled futures are never truly gone; they simply linger over and around us.

Fittingly, the idea of hauntology, itself, made a return over time. It went from an esoteric academic topic in the early 90s to a prevalent theme in the cultural zeitgeist in the late 2000s to early 2010s. Two powerhouses of the allegedly reigning liberal democracy and neoliberalism at the time, the US and the UK, suddenly saw a flood of new music that focused on the past’s undelivered futures. Pop culture constantly recycles the past, yet compared to prior decades it seemed to be doing so at a much less subtle and far more widespread rate, whether exemplified through the artists’ choices in source material (Burial’s Untrue; Leyland Kirby’s The Caretaker project; Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica), fidelity (John Maus, James Ferraro, Outer Limits Recordings, Ariel Pink), or even entire emergent genres making commentary on the state of capitalism (vaporwave, chillwave). The film industry followed soon after with its stampede of remakes and unwarranted sequels to previously dormant franchises, cashing in on a dismal Buzzfeed (“Remember These 10 Things From The 90s?”) generation, looking for the nepenthe of nostalgia.

Journalists and cultural theorists at the time, such as Simon Reynolds and the aforementioned Mark Fisher, posited that this pervasive gaze towards the past, this saudade for what lingers but never materializes, could be understood as a response to what was happening socioeconomically in the Western World. Free market capitalism was supposed to roll out prosperity for all, yet in the US at this time, large swaths of the population were still trying to recover from the massive financial crisis of the Great Recession. Government spending continued to funnel into one of the nation’s longest wars with no concrete aim or end in sight, as Americans back overseas meanwhile struggled to find employment and stability. If Fukuyama was right, and America’s neoliberal capitalism was the end of history, then judging by the trends in art, it seemed that those living under the conditions of this political economy may have been feeling a growing malaise and longing for the simplicity and comfort of the past as they suffered through the resulting negative consequences of the present — unemployment, rising student debt (for an education that funneled into a barren job market), and continued involvement in the nation’s longest, most publicly ill-received war since Vietnam. It seemed the artists were remarking upon a present reality that failed to deliver certain futures, certain hopes of a cultural past.

This brings us back to presidential campaign slogans. By 2008, George Bush Jr.’s approval rating was in the 30th percentile. The housing market had burst and the economic consequences left large swaths of the populace in desperation for a deus ex machina. The ’08 Obama campaign hit the scene with “Change we can believe in,” or the more memorable short-forms, “Change” and “Hope.” The recent past and present weren’t looking good in America, so Obama and the DNC cast people’s gaze towards an open future. This campaign not only won the presidential race that year, but it also went on to win advertising awards at Cannes.

One need not be an advertiser or award judge to notice the advantageous use of temporal rhetoric in Obama’s 2008 campaign. Its slogan oriented voters around a future. It offered them essentially the same thing that the American Dream did: the allure of a redeeming possibility fueled by one’s individualized desires. It kept things vague both temporally and in how it addressed its audience, allowing them to define hope and change for themselves. It’s often said that electoral politics can be summed up as “What’s in it for me?” and Obama answered that question with “hope” and “change” — something different from the present, at a time when people were desperate and hopeless. Obama’s team orbited language around the promise of ambiguity, yet that ambiguity sounded different enough from both the recent past and unfavorable present to allure Americans’ conviction, and thus, their votes.

However, during his two terms in office, Obama didn’t exactly deliver on his campaign’s offer. The optimism of the 2008 campaign did not follow with as much positive material change as voters had desperately, uh, hope’ d… Defenders of Obama’s legacy may cite what he had inherited from Bush in the first term or the Republican majority Senate in the second, while those critical of him may cite his corporate loyalty, drone strikes, Wall Street bailouts, sustained occupation in Afghanistan, and lukewarm use of executive orders. Regardless, both sides can at least observe that undelivered futures resulted from Obama’s initial campaign messaging — undelivered promises of jobs (1 mil. manufacturing; 5 mil. green), ending overseas military occupancy, and the paying off of student loans, to name just a few.

If the US’s neoliberalism — to which Obama remains unbashfully allegiant — is the final form of political-economic rule, then it had surely started off with a rocky first few decades. Obama’s administration left much of the populace still out of work, drowning in student debt, and unhelped by a reformist healthcare solution like Obamacare. Many Americans had bought into his promise of a different future and, instead, only received a bait-and-switch for a still forlorn present.

Given this context, the temporal rhetoric in Trump’s 2016 MAGA campaign makes a lot of sense in succession. The present wasn’t working for a lot of Americans, and any vague talk about the future might just result in knee-jerk scrutiny given that Obama’s performance wasn’t far past in the rearview. So instead of approximating voters around a future, Trump and the GOP guided them into an ambiguous past. A vague future like Obama’s may grant people hope and imagination, but a vague past like Trump’s can grant them a sense of familiarity and security — whether that comes from a naïve childhood memory, a “simpler time” that a deceased relative had described, or a romanticization in a past work of art. The past doesn’t die, it returns.

Whether fully intended or not, Trump’s campaign essentially responded to growing hauntology… with more hauntology. Instead of serving a nostalgic, disheartened populace with a new flavor of vague futures and forward-gaze, Trump’s team decided to feed and harness a preexistent longing for the past’s escapism. They built a campaign around a sedating saudade. The MAGA slogan’s ambiguity allowed it to tap into Americans’ individualized associations with the past, much in the same way that the ambiguity of the 2008 Obama campaign had tapped into their individualized associations with a future.

Trump’s slogan, in tandem with some of his subsequent rhetoric and policy, resonated with groups of people who likely felt more comfortable or accepted in various pasts — people like klan members, xenophobes, and misogynists. However, it would be a grave oversight to only see those individuals as the audience of Trump’s campaign. Its successful resonance wasn’t limited to hate groups and political subcultures, but with tens of millions of ostracized Americans that the Obama administration had economically failed. One can better understand why the rhetoric and employed nostalgia of the Trump campaign succeeded with these people, given the prior 8 years of empty political optimism that they had endured.

In contrast, what campaign language did Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, meanwhile have to offer? “I’m With Her”, “Stronger Together” — one reminded voters of the candidate’s gender, and the other spoke vaguely about strength, yet each indicated little about what Americans could gain from the candidate. Obama and Trump’s campaign slogans directly answered “What’s in it for me?” with a temporal idea that draws up personalized associations and individualized desires; Clinton’s did not. She already carried common associations with elitism, and this failure to speak to or understand the populace’s needs wasn’t exactly improving her credibility otherwise.

Clinton’s 2016 campaign utilized cultural-liberalism’s rising employment of identity-politics (which the aforementioned Mark Fisher had also diagnosed as a threat to the Left and its ability to form unity in his 2013 essay Exiting The Vampire Castle) by anchoring on Clinton’s gender. A victory would make Clinton the first female president in the US. To be clear, that would be a historic achievement, but if that’s the leading point for a campaign then it may come across to voters as, “That’s all you need to know,” or “This is the most important thing I have to offer you.” It says everything about her and nothing about what she could actually provide voters over four years. It didn’t help that a lot of Clinton’s campaign positioned itself around simply not being Trump, rather than hitting upon any of her own policy stances. The campaign failed to propose an alternative to the economic climate left by Obama, so instead, it turned to scold and mock the opponent — akin to the DNC’s modern tendency to existentially identify itself through dialogic opposition to the GOP. Ultimately, Clinton’s campaign slogans communicated a lack of understanding about the populace and their present sentiment in a way that MAGA did not.

Given the Clinton campaign’s underperformance and, conversely, the success of Trump’s MAGA campaign, one would expect the Democrats to return with an improved, provocative campaign strategy in 2020, one that might integrate and respond to Trump’s campaign in the same way that Trump’s had built off of Obama’s. And from many measures, it looked like Biden and the DNC had things teed up in their favor. Trump’s 2020 approval ratings were nearly as low as Bush Jr.’s in 2008; his administration provided one of the worst Covid responses and the highest subsequent death toll in the world, as well as the steepest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. Why is it, then, that Biden and team landed on “No Malarkey” and “Build Back Better”? The former told voters that Biden wouldn’t bullshit them — which surely must sound suspicious as a politician’s leading statement (“Just Trust Me” could’ve been a good alternative…). But what about the latter? BBB appears to be suggesting the same maneuver as MAGA — anchoring voters to the past’s return, and via a previously used slogan from a prior decade no less. Furthermore, some commentators took note of how the positioning of Biden’s 2020 campaign bore a close resemblance to Hillary’s in 2016. It both orbited around a similar “I’m not him,” ad hominem against Trump instead of highlighting a lot of Biden’s own policy stances, and again made strategic use of identity politics — this time not through the candidate’s own identifiers but through his VP selection (though Biden never shied from an opportunity to bring up his, uh, Irish heritage). The whole campaign strategy felt like a Frankenstein of stale, past tactics. It failed to respond to the changes in the American political landscape over the past 4 years in a way that was relevant or current; instead, it dug into the past.

But it’s not like Biden or the Democratic party had been clueless. The 2020 Democratic Primary alone provided them a ton of evident trends to work off of. Progressive Bernie Sanders saw the strongest primary start for any candidate in the history of the United States. His stances on populist policies like Medicare For All, protectionist trade, both job creation and green energy via the Green New Deal, and the cancellation of student debt were resonating with majorities of primary voters, state after state. Obama soon intervened, calling and urging the other candidates to drop-out and rally behind Biden so that an outsider entryist like Bernie wouldn’t topple the DNC off its hind legs. And yet, oddly, after Biden’s subsequent victory, his team avoided campaigning around any of Bernie’s popular policies or toward his massive base. Instead of observing these free homework notes, it seemed the DNC wanted to stick to their guns (and donors), which appeared evident not only in the party’s insistent repetition of a past Clintonite slogan and lukewarm 2016 strategies but also in who they pandered towards. Rather than try to win over the sizable amount of progressive voters, the DNC instead reached right, stretching towards Republicans by strategizing with the Lincoln Project who successfully raised $67 million for the campaign effort. But this strategy failed in clear numbers. According to 2020 exit polls, Trump achieved even more Republican votes in 2020 (93%) compared to 2016 (90%). The Democratic Party’s attempt to pander to the right instead of speaking to the overwhelming number of citizens in favor of more progressive policy proved fruitless.

In the end, Biden and the DNC’s anchoring in the past may have seized a presidential victory but it was by a much smaller margin than anticipated with nearly half of the popular vote still voting for Trump. The DNC’s stubborn refusal to address the present and instead remain in the past didn’t bring more than a narrowly elected band-aid to help them stay in power until they will have to foreseeably repeat similar tactics in the future. Meanwhile, those 75,000,000 citizens who voted for Trump, as well as those who were aligned with Sanders’ politics, are not likely to disappear anytime soon. The many people who are continually ignored by both the DNC or GOP’s neoliberalism and reformist-at-best policies aren’t going anywhere, no matter what language these parties use. As Derrida’s concept of hauntology suggests — the past doesn’t die; it lingers and returns. The clock’s hands may be changed, but the actual time remains the same.

So where does that leave the country in the present? Personally, I suspect the only way to truly silence or resolve resurfacing pasts is to properly integrate them so that the zeitgeist can synthesize and move beyond them. Unresolved pasts require addressing — intervention, therapy, séances, changed behavior, adjusted course. The more we spread understanding and awareness of this need, the more we can increase collective consciousness, which in turn, makes our knock at the door all the louder. It is clear that the same issues (healthcare, job availability, working wages and conditions, student debt, ending senseless military occupancy, and ecological sustainability) keep returning in present discourse, and that the two parties in power have put forth little more than rhetorical games, incremental reform, and empty promises to change them. Why would they when their power is kept in place with the funding provided by health insurance companies, military-industrial entities, and corporate donors who are all in favor of keeping things the way they are? Both parties surely recognize that their brand of politics and the systems that keep it in place are incompatible with the futures that the American people have been asking for, so of course they try to direct us to stay in the past with them. But if these endangered parties keep repeating routine rhetorical motions to vague pasts or emptily-optimistic futures, without creating any material policy change that actually serves the needs of the people, then it seems the country’s past will accrue too large of a debt to ignore. If things keep getting swept under the rug, eventually the weight might break the floorboards.

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