David Levi Strauss / Debates / Dispatch

Dispatch 25: Rope-a-Doping the Mainstreaming of Deviancy

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ONE of the many curious sights in Cleveland at the Republican Convention was boxing promoter Don King, who had apparently been snubbed by Trump as a speaker at the convention, working the room like a conquering hero. His salt and pepper Eraserhead fro caught the bright lights of the arena as he did interview after interview with adoring conservative media, draped in a massive denim jacket emblazoned on the back with a patriotic display, topped off with an American flag kerchief.

I thought of King in the run-up to the first Presidential debate, as Paul Begala, among others, predicted that it would be “the most-watched event in human history.” In October 1974, that designation belonged to the Rumble in the Jungle, in Kinshasa, Zaire, organized and promoted by the then unknown King, that pitted undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman against former champion Muhammad Ali. In that fight, Ali invented the rope-a-dope technique, baiting Foreman to pummel him with ineffectual blows as he leaned back against the ropes, until Foreman punched himself out, and Ali decked him in the eighth round.

The first Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump wasn’t quite as impressive, in the end, but Clinton was able to bait Trump and goad him into a flurry of attacks that left him winded and gasping. She didn’t knock him out, but most post-debate commentators gave her a clear victory on points. Neither candidate was working with new material, but Trump repeated old talking points and doubled down on positions he’d previously abandoned. He just couldn’t help himself.

The weird thing is that Clinton might have won the debate, but still lost votes. Most people didn’t think Trump could last through a ninety-minute debate, and he did show, as Maureen Dowd pointed out, that he can’t take a punch. But he survived the encounter without visibly frothing at the mouth or weeping uncontrollably.

In the end, Trump might have benefited mightily among undecideds from a kind of Presidential “mainstreaming of deviancy.” My old friend Bob Dole used that term in another context when he was competing for the Republican nomination for President in 1995 (on the way to being defeated by Bill Clinton), and trying to shore up his conservative bona fides. Dole’s target then was the entertainment industry, including the music business, selling “’songs’ about killing policemen and rejecting law,” and Hollywood’s dream factories, turning out “nightmares of depravity” that “revel in mindless violence and loveless sex.” He singled out 2 Live Crew and Oliver Stone’s movie Natural Born Killers, among others. “The mainstreaming of deviancy must come to an end,” said Bob, “but it will only stop when the leaders of the entertainment industry recognize and shoulder their responsibility.”

What a difference 21 years of mainstreaming make. Today, Donald Trump has moved the language and methods of the entertainment industry over into the political realm, and it’s mostly working. What Dole decried as a cultural coarsening is now seen as evidence of authenticity. Trump said some outrageous things last night, but they were normalized by the serious setting (and the constant equalizing split screen) of a real Presidential debate. Racist and xenophobic statements became part of mainstream political discourse, and will remain so for some time. Bob Dole’s nightmares have come home.

David Levi Strauss
Tuesday, September 27, 2016

LINK to all David Levi Strauss Power 2016 Dispatches

[Photography: David Levi Strauss. Republican Party National Political Convention. Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland, Ohio. July 2016. Click on image to see an enlargement.]

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