Don’t Bring a Knife to a Gunfight; or, The Symmetries of Politicking

There is no point in hiding my personal preferences regarding this presidential election, but this blog seeks to take an ironic distance on the media scene that surrounds it.  And so two reminders that US Presidential elections often mobilize symmetrical elements.

19finalbiographpicturecatalogmckinleyathomeMy first example is drawn from the 1896 election when the cinema was brand new.  The two major American motion pictures entities in the fall of 1896 were the Biograph company, owned by a number of Republicans including Abner McKinley–the brother of Republican presidential candidate William McKinley, and the Vitascope Company in alliance with the Edison Manufacturing Company.  Biograph filmed McKinley at Home and premiered it in the company’s official debut program at Hammerstein’s Olympia Music Hall on October 12th.  The screening was sponsored by the Republican National Committee, and many powerful Republicans filled the theater to cheer their standard bearer.  Although the Edison group was also pro-McKinley in principle, commercial expediency forced them to promote Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan by filming Bryan Train Scene at Orange, NJ.  The two films were shot two days apart.  Bryan’s operatives had arranged for their candidate to stop in Orange, NJ for a photo-op that the Edison team could not afford to ignore.  McKinley was filmed first, but the Vitascope Company could have easily gotten Bryan Train Scene at Orange, NJ into vaudeville theaters first.  But they failed–almost certainly due to political sabotage.  (It appeared on New York screens exactly one week later but with little fanfare.) One question is: How did the Democrats find out about the plans to film McKinley, so they could respond so quickly? Did they have a mole in the Biograph Company? Had Vitascope partner Norman Raff, who was from McKinley’s hometown of Canton, Ohio, try to film McKinley but was denied access?  Despite the Democrats quick response, they were  completely outplayed by the Republicans in this battle of the motion pictures.

My second example is a contemporary one: Donald Trump’s campaign has formed an alliance with Gennifer Flowers while Hillary Clinton has befriended Alicia Machado.  Hillary has played it cool in the face of the Donald’s amazingly rude and ultimately quite
gennifer-flowersaliciamachadopanteradespicable threat to invite Flowers to attend the first debate and place her in the first row.  (For those who forget, Flowers had a longstanding affair with Clinton back in his days as Governor of Arkansas.) In contrast, when Hillary evoked Machado in their first debate, Trump lost his cool––not only during their TV exchanges but on Twitter later in the week.  The resulting displays of misogyny may well contribute to his undoing, but what might interest us at least for the moment is the symmetry.
In May 2016, as it became clear that DJT was going to be the Republican nominee and HRC was going to be his Democratic rival, Gennifer Flowers opened a new Twitter account (she had closed an old one several years earlier). We should assume that the Clinton camp was keeping tabs on Ms. Flowers, since she had been used as a political weapon against the Clintons in the past and was likely to pop up somewhere again.screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-5-34-06-amTrump’s operatives, we can only assume, were reintroducing Gennifer Flowers to the public, waiting for the right moment to use her in the campaign. That same month an old article in Murdoch’s Daily Mail was updated.

This updated article gained little traction when it appeared, but that changed in the week leading up to the debate when Trump threatened to have Flowers attend as his guest––and she tweeted her acceptance.   In the resulting firestorm of news stories, the Daily Mail profile of Flowers enjoyed renew attention. The on-line journal The Frisky was one of many to jump in:

These days, Flowers writes a sex advice column, “Ask Mistress Gennifer” for, a website dedicated to the lad mag publisher Bob Guccione. There she writes about topics posed by readers, like “I want my boyfriend to dominate me” and “My girlfriend wants me to get circumcised.”  If you follow Mistress Gennifer’s sex tips, you might experience a little bit of Bubba “I’m going to have to thank Bill for some of the advice I’m going to be giving. It will be based on experiences I had with him,” she said. “Really, he taught me a lot.”

Incidentally I have not been able to find “Ask Mistress Gennifer” and is a long dead website. The big “news” that Trump’s operatives were apparently eager to share: Bill and Hill have a kind of arrangement or understanding about his extra-marital affairs because Hillary is bi-sexual. The implication––never quite stated––is that Hillary and Huma (Anthony Weiner’s soon to be ex-) have a thing.

Was it coincidence that Alicia Machado became a US citizen in May 2016 and then became an active Hillary supporter the following month? Trump does not think so.
screen-shot-2016-10-02-at-10-43-56-am Hillary may well be familiar with the expression, “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.” Machado was a Miss Universe when Trump was running the show, and the two had a difficult relationship and ultimately a falling out.  As reported in Wikipedia:

“She has spoken out many times against Donald Trump, who, during her year as Miss Universe, she claims called her “Miss Piggy” because she gained weight and “Miss Housekeeping” because of her Hispanic background.[3] Trump said: “She was impossible” and that “[s]he was the winner and you know, she gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem. We had a real problem. Not only that, her attitude, and we had a real problem with her.”[

Trump was not prepared for pro-Machado remarks during the debate.  In this respect, Hillary used surprise to her advantage.  And as is well-know at this point–Trump started tweeting about the two of them early in the morning of Sept 30th–the day I was on my way to Italy for my book launch (October 4th is the official pub date).

HRC was impressive in the first debate, and she came out on top in the Flowers vs. Machado match up. Trump’s misogyny and his disdain for Latinos were on full display. Nevertheless, it says something about the state of American politics when these two women–both of whom were center folds in Playboy–are at the center of  a presidential campaign that is just one month away from Election Day.  Certainly it gives the lie to the fact that the Donald is a good negotiator and deal maker.  On one hand, Machado was his employee: apparently he failed to have her sign a nondisclosure agreement.  On the other Hillary completely outmaneuvered him.

The Republican candidate would have been wise to remember the 18th century maxim, “Hell has not fury like a woman scorned.”







Who really won the “debate”? Just ask Trump’s Traitors.

As I went to bed on Monday night, I had the unsettling sensation that Hillary Clinton might well have won the debate.  In this I was hardly alone, but my feeling was “unsettling” because I  knew that Clinton was appealing to people like me. So we must be ready to discount our own impressions––as well as the impressions of the liberal media. Indeed, when I woke up the next morning, the Donald offered compelling confirmation that these impressions had indeed been inaccurate:


And this…screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-10-37-03-pm

Pretty impressive.  And then Mark Shields of PBS fame apparently found HRC to be abrasive and off putting. A colleague of mine said the same thing.





So it must have been true. Donald Trump, reality TV star, knew instinctively what Americans wanted to hear.  And he confirmed it, remarking:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-11-08-08-pmAnd who can disagree, given that Real Men don’t watch CNN.  Poor Hillary was left posting and boasting about one lousy poll:screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-10-57-25-pm

Clearly enthusiastic Trump supporters were mobilized to respond, flooding these polling sites as if they were voting for their favorite singer on American Idol. Indeed, as CBS noted, “According to data released by Twitter, Donald Trump dominated Twittersphere. Sixty-two percent of Twitter conversation went to @realDonaldTrump compared to @HillaryClinton who claimed 38 percent.” If nothing else, this confirms what we already know: Trump (but also his supporters) know how to use media–particularly social media–far more effectively than his Democratic rival.

Of course, in the more extended aftermath, as the more scientific sampling came out, our initial impression was confirmed:  Clinton had “won” the debate. But the Charlotte Observer fought back: “Presidential debate surprise: Clinton loses ground among some voters in swing state.” Good for the Charlotte Observer! Their certain to be one of the best seats on Trump press plane.  As CNN perhaps somewhat gleefully reported:

Washington (CNN)Donald Trump is angry that his aides and advisers have conceded to reporters — largely without attribution — that the Republican nominee struggled in his first presidential debate.
In a conference call with surrogates Wednesday afternoon, Trump aides made clear the Republican nominee is upset that his allies publicly acknowledged they pushed him to change his preparation and tactics before his next bout with Hillary Clinton. And he wants them to stop it immediately.
The message was “not subtle,” a source familiar with the call said.
Trump wants his supporters to make an energetic defense of his performance and refuse to concede that he didn’t nail it.

Looking for evidence that would support his contention, Trump emailed his supporters.screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-11-46-10-pmOf course, having assumed the role of an identified Trump supporter, I quickly replied that Trump won the debate.  Didn’t all the polls–particularly the polls on his website–already prove it?
  OK.  This is nothing new, really.  During the 1896 presidential campaign, all major New York City newspapers but one endorsed Republican presidential candidate William McKinley.  The sole exception was William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.  Hearst insisted that Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan would win New York State–and so the presidential election–until the polls close and the returns proved otherwise.  In fact, Bryan didn’t even manage to carry New York City–the Democrat’s Gibraltar––and lost the state by over 250,000 votes.
So Trump is right to insist that he won the debate whatever the evidence to the contrary.  Nonetheless, he may not be able to have it both ways as he also complains about the questions and his bad mike.  What does the Donald do when he falters in this circumstance? He announces that he will not be so nice the next time and bring up Bill Clinton’s sexcapades. So maybe Gennifer Flowers will finally get that ringside seat that she has been hoping for after all.

Trumped Up, Trickle Down

trump-vs-clintonTonight I am here watching the debates with some Film & Media Studies graduate students…

First it is interesting that there is only one shot–a split screen–of the two candidates, which runs throughout the debate.  The sole exceptions are occasion cuts to the moderator asking a question.  HRC is calling him Donald, perhaps because she would like to be called Hillary–making a clearer separation from her husband.  DJT makes a point of calling her Secretary Clinton perhaps because he wants to appear respectful and so more presidential.

It seems that Hillary is doing pretty well so far. I quickly looked at their Twitter pages. Trump’s twitter page is silent while Hillary Clinton’s page is active as her staff tweets away–very effectively.  This is the upside of the third person twitter feed.  The Donald can’t tweet while he is on stage.



Hillary’s twitter feed on the other hand is often voicing her debate highlights.  I am intrigued by their consistency but at this moment, hers is clearly more effective.

clinton-twiitter-during-debateWoops, I take it back.  His Twitter page must have frozen on my computer–and maybe on others since the Clinton page kept on updating. Did someone hack his twitter page?

Note that Trump is wearing a blue tie and Clinton is wearing a red pants suit.  They switched colors, flipping the usual blue states and red states dicotomy.  What is this about? Was that agreed on in advance–or just coincidence.  A shared gesture to reduce polarization?  I don’t normally go for these fashion analyses but red was a strong color for her–better than white (at the Democratic Convention) or blue. And clearly she has decided that pants suits are the right dress code for these occasions.  She looked good–not like some of those zombie pictures the alt-right likes to show on sponsored posts.


It is going to be interesting to see how voters who are not deeply committed to either candidate are reacting.  It certainly seems from my vantage that Hillary is showing an authority and confidence that make her impressive.  Her line on Trump’s economic plan –“trumped up, trickle down”–is clever.

According to Politico…

A composed Hillary Clinton got under Donald Trump’s skin during their high-stakes showdown on Monday night, with the Republican nominee persistently interrupting Clinton as she needled him on his business record, the size of his fortune and his relationship with the truth.

Certainly Trump’s acknowledgement that he paid no federal taxes and was proud of it should not endear himself to most voters I would think.  But you never know.  Much of this is in the eyes of the beholder.

I bet FOX News disagrees. But maybe not so much.  Here are the headlines:


Some sites are saying that she won big.

So how might this be compared to the 1890s? Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison never met face to face in 1888 or 1892.  In 1896, the only places where William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan met were in the phonograph parlors where adjoining phonographs offered speeches from each one––their words but voiced by someone else. Patrons often compared:

A phonograph parlor arond the time of the 1896 Presidential Election
A phonograph parlor around the time of the 1896 Presidential Election

In 1900, the phonograph was moving into the home.  In their rematch, the candidates were more likely to be given equal time in the vaudeville theaters–by impersonators who would mimic both candidates and by motion picture exhibition services which would show films of both candidates.  These theaters needed to offer balanced programming–otherwise they could lose many of their patrons.

Tonight’s split screen goes back to this notion of symmetry.  As I remember, in the past, the cameras would move around to keep the shots interesting.  Here the candidates knew that they would both be on camera the whole time–speaking or reacting to the other’s speaking.

And of course, this discretely reinforces the two party system.  In the 1890s, there were third, fourth and fifth parties but the major newspapers consistently favored either the Democrat or the Republican.  The media does a lot to keep the two party system in place–then and now.  The televised debate would have us see voting for Johnson or Stein is clearly a throw away vote. They were kept safely off the stage.  The Coke/Pepsi comparison–the split screen–would not have worked nearly as well with three or four candidates. The two candidate comparison undoubtedly worked to Clinton’s advantage. Moreover, I think she ended up on the more desirable side of the screen.  One might also argue that this, too, was a conscious reversal with Trump on the Left and Clinton on the right.  But it was more important for her than for DJT.  One must assume that these were all carefully considered and negotiated.cnn-trump-hillary-998x699The other thing that happened was that she appeared on the right side of the screen

Next time around Donald may insist that he be allowed to be Donald.  The gloves will come off. As he said, he could have said mean things about her and her family but he was trying to be nice.  But it didn’t work.

Politicking on Twitter with Gennifer Flowers

Stop Right Here:


For one moment, let’s just forget the content of the above Tweet. The tweet and so Twitter should interest us as a phenomenon in and of itself.  The social media of choice for Barack Obama was YouTube. So let me quote the first paragraph from my book Politicking and Emergent Media:

In 2008 Barack Obama utilized the new possibilities of the Internet far more effectively than did his rivals Hillary Clinton and John McCain, giving the young Senator a crucial edge in the Democratic nominating process and general election. For example: After suffering unexpected defeat in the New Hampshire primary, Obama delivered an inspirational speech on live television in the late evening: “Yes We Can.” Although this address to his disheartened supporters went largely unseen due to the late hour and the many competing campaign narratives of the day, his campaign organization immediately reposted the broadcast to the candidate’s YouTube channel, where it became an Internet phenomenon. Its impact was further augmented by Will.I.Am’s immensely popular “Yes We Can” music video, which echoed Obama’s New Hampshire oratory as an array of performers voiced what may be the most potent campaign song in US political history. This speech is often said to have propelled Obama to the nomination and ultimately the presidency, but it was the Internet that made that possible. Likewise, Obama supporters from around the world expressed their heartfelt enthusiasm for his candidacy on the Internet, usually in song. This ran the gamut from a popular video showing members of Obama for Obama––a group from Obama, Fukui, in Japan––joyously singing “O-B-A-M-A OBAMA!” to a YouTube posting by a young Swedish woman of Finnish ethnicity who was working in the United Kingdom as a nanny: alone in her small, underfurnished room in the early hours of the morning, she sang a song to celebrate his nomination. It would barely receive 100 views.

Has any one gone on YouTube to look for campaign songs this election? It is hard to imagine someone writing a campaign song to celebrate either Clinton or Trump unless it was tongue in cheek–or they got paid a lot of money.    There were a few music videos for Bernie Sanders––such as the Simon & Garfunkel song America. But even then the song wasn’t written about Sanders.  He lacked a “Yes, We Can” song.  But it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.  Internet energy was headed elsewhere–to Twitter.

Twitter is the social media form of the 2016 election, and Donald Trump is not only the master of it, he is the person who made it the media form of choice.  He has 11.7 million followers–not quite 2 million more than Hillary Clinton. But compare the ways each of the candidates use it.  Whatever you think of Trump, you are getting Trump.  It is first person Twitter.  Hillary’s page is all in the third person. Consider how they just handled two key endorsements:

Clinton was endorsed by the NYTimes: clinton-and-ny-times

Her twitter feed shows it off, but frankly I already knew that she got the Times endorsement.  Nothing new here. What did she think about it? Of course it was a certainty but she could have at least offered up a thanks.

That’s what Trump did when he got an endorsement from Ted Cruz:


Of course, I already knew that Cruz endorsed Trump. But I didn’t know how Trump was reacting to Cruz’s cave-in.  Magnanimously as it turns out.  Having been humiliated and defeated by Trump, Cruz finally pays fealty to his lord and master.  Trump could have dismissed the endorsement with distain, sending Cruz to the coal mines, but he didn’t.  He is generous in victory.  In contrast, Hillary’s twitter feed is like a news aggregator.

But let’s now go back to the first tweet:

My God, Donald Trump is taking the low road even as he goes nuclear.  Bringing Gennifer Flowers to the debate as his special guest: Isn’t that misogynistic? It probably is.  But why at this moment? First, it is a response to the announcement by Mark Cuban that he was going to be Hillary Rodman Clinton’s guest at the Monday debate.



Presumably having Cuban at the debate might unsettle or distract the Donald.  The Texas billionaire is not only a Hillary supporter but in longstanding feud with Trump.  It is interesting that Cuban (with his 5.57 million followers) announced this piece of news–not the Clinton campaign.  Perhaps it was Cuban’s idea?  In any case, it makes her look a little weak.

Trump wants to ensure a favorable debate environment for himself.  He doesn’t need a fellow billionaire in the front row mocking him. In any case, the Donald won’t allow himself to be upstaged. So jujitsu. Gennifer Flowers will get a lot more attention from the press than Cuban. Once again Trump is top dog.  He must have been waiting for a chance to play the Flowers card, and Hillary gave him the opening (it was only a question of time). Will we have both Mark Cuban and Gennifer Flowers in the front row?  Who knows.  Las Vegas has probably established the odds already.  The campaigns are doubtlessly negotiating as we speak.  And it will be interesting because this is the kind of “art of the deal” that Trump savors.  So stay tune.  It should ensure a record breaking audience for the first debate.

But haven’t we forgotten something? Well yes. Certainly this is all a lot more titillating than some boring New York Times endorsement, which is hardly a surprise and barely news.  Isn’t your salacious mind much more inclined to google Gennifer Flowers, reflect on her scandalous past with Bill Clinton and speculate on how upsetting it might be for Presidential candidate Clinton to have her in the front row. Why worry about actual issues and the candidates’ vision for America when we have this political blood sport to watch?  Once again Trump seems on top–doing to Clinton what he did to Cruz.

How does this connect with politics in the late nineteenth century?  Well when Democrat Grover Cleveland was running against Republican James Blaine, he was viciously attacked for an illicit affair and a child born out of wedlock.  Blaine’s supporters ridiculed Cleveland by chanting “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa? After Cleveland won in a squeaker,  his supporters happily responded: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha.” The Gennifer Flowers card is a powerful one, but it could also backfire.

 More on Flowers in my next post.