How a new propaganda genre has reshaped politics (or not)

How a new propaganda genre has reshaped politics (or not)
"Joe Biden" by sagabardon is licensed under CC by-nc 2.0

As you may have heard, former Vice President Joe Biden jumped into the 2020 presidential race toward the end of April, ending what felt like several years of his not-very-suspenseful superannuated Prince Hamlet act. Biden’s official announcement came in the form of a deeply strange video, only slightly less awkward than the earlier one in which he promised not to get quite so snuggly with women he didn’t know, while stopping well short of admitting he’d ever done anything wrong. (It’s already clear this will be the inspiring theme of Biden 2020: Let’s leave the past behind us! Except for the part about that ex-president you guys were into! Who is totally returning my calls BTW!)


This raises the fascinating question (well, fascinating to me anyway) of the campaign announcement video, which is not exactly not a new genre but in previous electoral cycles has generally overlapped with the related but separate phenomenon of “first campaign commercial.” Biden’s strategic deployment of the form, along with widely differing examples from Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and meme-worthy pseudo-candidate Mike Gravel, suggests that the CAV is coming into its own this time around.

That said, the CAV is not ubiquitous and apparently not required: Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders produced more traditional campaign ads and chose to deliver their announcement speeches before live audiences, counting on YouTube and the news networks to do the rest. Pete Buttigieg’s campaign split the difference in highly characteristic fashion, producing an official version of his “proud son of South Bend” speech that is just amateurish enough to feel homemade and just professional enough to feel calculated. That’s honestly not meant as a diss! Mayor Pete’s entire campaign is a self-diss, but that’s another matter.

I suspect the CAV is both a top-down and bottom-up phenomenon: Almost every Democrat running against a Republican incumbent for a House seat last fall had some version of a video on her or his website (“Suzanne speaks to the Tri-County Region!”) It’s a safe bet that every single genius consultant at every presidential campaign longs to create a viral video moment, but there’s no clear consensus on whether such a thing can be cannily constructed in advance or must emerge organically (or at least must appear to do so).

Much as I’m tempted to pursue a long-form exegesis of the formal, stylistic and semiotic elements of the CAV, or to explore its prehistory — well, I won’t, because who cares? Superficial capsule reviews may bring us closer to the spirit of this baffling and deeply unnecessary form, product of a contradictory age of maximal cynicism and maximal hunger for authenticity.

Joe Biden: The “aberrant moment” might last forever

I can’t figure out whether Team Biden didn’t know that this ahistorical jumble of miscellaneous images, disastrous typography and immediately-forgettable oratory would be greeted with widespread internet derision, or simply didn’t care. Quite plausibly it’s the latter, since Biden is conspicuously ignoring the leftist snipe-hunt of ProgressoTwitter and, in effect, arguing that Democrats can just skip the whole primary campaign since we all know he’s the guy who can beat Donald Trump and we don’t have to like it as long as we’re buckled in.

I think this video is almost inexplicably terrible — it’s trying to deliberately revel in squareness and whiteness but can’t even get those signals right. Its “artistic” decisions were evidently made by malicious computer code: Biden himself, once upon a time a handsome, balding man in a sketchy, loan-sharky vein, here appears bleached or sandblasted, with a thin blitz of white synthetic material affixed to his head. It’s as if someone had decided it was necessary to make him look as artificial as Donald Trump. His Oxford shirt appears to have just come off the rack at the Brooks Brothers outlet store in Rehoboth Beach, possibly with the straight pins and bits of stiff cardboard still attached.



Biden’s mush-mouthed mid-Atlantic delivery is unconvincing in the extreme, perhaps because his message is one that even his most ardent fans only pretend to believe: The Trump presidency is “an aberrant moment in time,” a bizarre detour from the inspiring upward trajectory of American history and our shared belief in a society where “everyone is treated with dignity,” bigotry has “no safe harbor” and “there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you work at it.” Make platitudes great again! George Orwell would actually shoot himself in the face (if he were alive, and had a gun). This is not just nonsense but dangerous and insulting nonsense, or it would be if we were meant to take it seriously.

Rendered into plain English, the message of this video is clear enough: Yeah, I might be further to the right than any Democratic nominee since the utterly reprehensible West Virginia segregationist John W. Davis in 1924, and that’s pretty freakin’ perverse given where we supposedly are right now. But I’m not batshit insane or a criminal or a pathological liar and here I am, so you woke-ass snowflakes can suck it. I mean, maybe I’m being too harsh and Biden is just a clueless old guy who has run for president six times before and been terrible at it, and now sees his moment when everyone is too demoralized to treat this whole process with dignity. It could be that too.

Cory Booker: "Morning in America," but so much more woken

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