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Why are politicians so obsessed with authenticity?

Another squad marches hopelessly into the enfilade of the inauthenticity firing line

November 27, 2019

7:01 PM

27 November 2019

7:01 PM

Every politician who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is the height of inauthenticity. Fortunately for lovers of comedy, many politicians are too stupid and too full of themselves to notice this. 

Every election year, another squad marches hopelessly into the enfilade of the inauthenticity firing line.

Think of Bush I visiting the National Grocers Association Convention in Florida back in 1992. Bush ambled towards an exhibit where a new type of checkout scanner was the hallowed attraction. The fancy device could read torn barcodes and weigh groceries. A pool report filed by the one reporter unlucky enough to be at the event, Gregg McDonald, said that when Bush examined the scanner he had a ‘look of wonder’ on his face.

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This minor detail was blown up by The New York Times into something far more inauthentic. When Bush examined the scanner:

‘The look of wonder flickered across his face again as he saw the item and price registered on the cash register screen…some grocery stores began using electronic scanners as early as 1976, and the devices have been in general use in American supermarkets for a decade.’

You don’t need to have studied under Leo Strauss to read between the lines there. Though much of the story was eventually debunked it stuck to Bush for the rest of the year. It seemed as if Bush encountered everyday phenomena with the rapt, wondrous eyes of some irritating freshman poet. The president had no idea what life was like for regular Americans.

Those with longer memories will remember how the presidency of Gerald Ford was critically maimed by his failure to consume a hot tamale like a mammal.

And students of the last presidential election will remember Hillary Clinton’s many algorithmically scripted attempts to seem human. In February 2016 Beyonce released ‘Formation’, a song which featured the line ‘I got hot sauce in my bag, swag.’

Two months later Hilary told the (mainly black, possibly incredulous) listeners of The Breakfast Club radio show on New York’s Power 105.1 that she too carries hot sauce in her bag.

Why black voters did not take to Hilary in that campaign remains, of course, a mystery. It must have been the Russians.

This agonized search for a real candidate continued this year. The Democrats seem about as likely to find a trustworthy, natural, honest, consistent and personally credible candidate as your drunkest uncle is to find that missing Malaysian airliner.

Take poor Beto O’Rourke. Hailed by Jim Messina, President Obama’s former campaign manager as ‘authentic, and luckily, authentically cool’, all stars, planets and major galaxies seemed to align for the man from El Paso.

Every sensible person knows that the most authentic way to begin a campaign is with a Vanity Fair cover shoot, which is exactly how Beto began his campaign in April.

So viscous were the adjectives used to describe him in that piece — optimistic, preternatural, open, youthful, unique, innocent, wholesome, decent, normal — that many of the magazine’s subscribers still have their fingers stuck to the pages on which those words appeared.

And so began Beto’s epic cross-country odyssey: Beto boldly refused to stand on anything that wasn’t a countertop; Beto courageously live-streamed a dental procedure — what, after all, could be more authentic than peering deep inside a candidate’s throat; Beto bravely called for serious violations of the First Amendment. 

But voters did not take to Beto. Somehow, the spectacle of a grown man still undergoing the big, painstaking dramas of individuation during middle-age proved unappealing to them.

Meanwhile Sen. Cory Booker — or Spartacus as he sometimes refers to himself — appears to be undergoing his own personal crisis of epistemology. He confessed all to New York magazine: ‘My closest friends say to me, “When I have conversations with people, they ask that question: ‘Is he for real?’” Which I don’t understand. “Is he real?” “Is he for real?”’

(You imagine Sen. Cory Booker, at a late hour of the evening, peeling away from his own reflection in the bathroom mirror, turning to his phone to Google: am I real?)

Last and no doubt least is Kamala Harris. The Harris campaign presented her as the contrast candidate. Simply place an articulate, professional black woman next to the apparently rambling Trump and all would be crystal mornings and ripe afternoons once again in America.

In what scriptwriters call a ‘light-hearted moment’ Harris revealed that she used to smoke marijuana when she was at Howard University in the 1980s. These fat zoots were apparently lit in between Harris’s double-major in political science and economics, her stint on the liberal-arts student council, her star turn on the debate team, her mentor programs for local youth and her passionate anti-apartheid activism.

That’s Harris then: another typical high-functioning stoner!

Harris also claimed to have had time to get down to Snoop Dogg and Tupac during her college years. Neither Snoop nor Tupac released a diss track, let alone an album, until after she graduated.

Biden, Warren and Sanders all comfortably lead Harris among black voters. The politician’s quest for authenticity is an attempt to court voters, but more often than not, it courts minor disaster. Authenticity — like any desire for distinguishment — is easily denounced, and even more easily mocked.

Voters do not have identical definitions of authenticity. This is a small victory of nature over conditioning, advertising and the behavioral sciences — an achievement very much against the odds, and against the legions of PRs who are to politics in this century what quack doctors were to the 18th.

It was Eliot who wrote that humankind cannot bear very much reality. The mistake too many in contemporary politics make is thinking that voters want reality at all.


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