Discover more from The Loaf, with Tim Kreider
"Primary Colors" and Ends vs. Means in the Post-Trump Era
Antidotes: A Series
It sometimes happens, in revisiting a book or a film after a couple decades, that you suddenly notice a radical shift in mores whose slow tectonic drift has been imperceptible in the interim. E.g., the farcical premise of The Birdcage—a young man asks his gay father and his longtime partner to hide the nature of their relationship from his conservative in-laws—seems a lot less reasonable and sympathetic now than it presumably did in 1996. As part of our Elaine May retrospective, my partner and I are now watching films that May wrote but didn’t direct, like The Birdcage and, more recently, Primary Colors, both directed by her old comedy partner Mike Nichols. For those too young to remember, Primary Colors was adapted from a roman a clef about a Southern governor running for President, written anonymously by someone privy to the 1992 Clinton campaign (later revealed as political commentator Joe Klein). I probably last saw the film adaptation on VHS not long after its release in 1998, and, watching it again now, I was disquieted to realize how far we’ve come, or sunk, in the decades since.
The central conflict of Primary Colors, between political idealism and pragmatism, is dramatized in the film’s climactic choice: whether the candidate will use some dirt he’s uncovered about a rival candidate to disgrace him publicly. It’s nothing like bribery or corruption, which might legitimately disqualify him from holding public office—just the sort of “character” issues conservatives love to disapprove of (a cocaine addiction and a homosexual dalliance twenty years earlier). Kathy Bates’s character, the campaign’s opposition researcher, who met the candidate and his wife while they were all campaigning for McGovern in ’72 (which talk about impractical idealism), is so disillusioned by her old friends’ failure of this ethical test that she commits suicide. Granted, the character has a history of mental illness and shaky impulse control (at one point she holds a man’s testicles at gunpoint to extract a confession), but the film clearly takes her disillusionment, and the choice that occasions it, seriously.
Watching it now causes me a kind of Mandela effect: I’m trying to remember whether this actually seemed like a compelling ethical dilemma to me at the time. It obviously seemed so to Joe Klein, author of the novel, and to screenwriter Elaine May and director Mike Nichols. It know it didn’t strike me as being as naïve, as obviously a non-issue—what’s called a “no-brainer”—as it does now. All that anguish over ends vs. means seems like the luxury of a more civilized time, like not wanting to allow the intrusion of a telephone in your home.
In the same way that those of us who came of age after Vietnam and the “credibility gap” can’t quite imagine the reverence with which the office of the Presidency used to be regarded, I suspect that young people now can’t understand the zeitgeist that made the subgenre of Presidential comedies seem like charming, frivolous fun. There was a whole cycle of them in that idyll between the fall of the Soviet Union and the fall of the twin towers, when the worst scandal to rock the republic involved an act of fellatio. There were some fundamental assumptions in American politics then, guarantees about security and stability, that made it a solid stage on which to play out satire and farce. Just as we know that no one in a romcom is going to be diagnosed with esophageal cancer or shoot their partner in a domestic dispute, we could take it for granted that the next election cycle would come as reliably as baseball season, and that everyone would ultimately honor the rules of the game: the President would concede if he lost the election, write a letter to his successor wishing him well, and stand stoically in the cold watching him sworn in; he wasn’t, e.g., going to claim it all hadn’t happened, barricade himself in the White House like a gangster holed up in a warehouse, and try to goad a mob into assassinating his V.P.
In the current dystopian timeline, we’ve all had to radically reevaluate our sense of what is possible, or permissible. Ten days after the election of 2016, journalist Sarah Kendzior wrote: “Write down what you value; what standards you hold for yourself and for others […] Because if you do not do it now, you may forget.
“Write a list of things you would never do. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will do them. Write a list of things you would never believe. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will either believe them or be forced to say you believe them.”
I happen to have a written record of my own pre-Trump political convictions. About a decade ago I wrote an essay, “When They’re Not Assholes (in my first essay collection, We Learn Nothing), about what we decreasingly accurately call “the discourse” in America. Having burned myself out on outrage as a political cartoonist throughout the grim years of the War on Terror, I was making an effort to outgrow the youthful pleasures of invective, bending over backward to be more empathetic and fair-minded, presume good faith on the part of our political opponents. This was back when the far right wing of the Republican party was called “the Tea Party”—a populist movement that arose after the government bailed out the investment banks who’d caused the economic collapse but let the people who’d lost their homes and savings go broke. It was ostensibly united around fiscal conservatism and opposition to the looming tyranny of Obamacare, but its real subterranean power source was racist panic about a black president, and it was financed, like most conservative movements, by billionaires whose only agenda was still more tax cuts and deregulation. I didn’t know all that yet, though; I was still trying to see the other side’s point of view, rise above the partisan rancor. “The truth is, there are not two kinds of people,” I wrote. “There’s only one: the kind that loves to divide up into gangs who hate each other’s guts.”
“Both conservatives and liberals agree among themselves, in uncannily identical language, that their opponents lack any self-awareness or empathy, the ability to see the other side of an argument or to laugh at themselves. Which would seem to suggest that they’re both correct.”
In retrospect, I’m starting to think I was right the first time. While I was making my earnest effort at empathy and understanding, the multimedia propaganda empire run by Rupert Murdoch was assuring its audience that we liberals were too hopelessly depraved and evil for decent Christian folk—real Americans—to bother trying to comprehend. The Tea Party proved, in hindsight, to have been a proto-fascist movement, the larval form of Trumpism. They seemed easily enough coopted and absorbed into the Republican mainstream, except it turned out they absorbed it instead, the way The Thing does: by imitating its host, becoming a perfect replica of it, except now secretly a shapeshifting mass of malevolent putrescence. The Klansmen and snake-handlers who’ve always constituted the Republican base in my lifetime—that embarrassing but necessary demographic, duped over and over again into voting for the economic interests of people who regard them as livestock—have taken over the party, which is now unabashedly authoritarian, racist and theocratic.
We’ve all had to question our own sense of values vs. tactics, of what ends justify which means, in the shadow of the ascendancy of an actual, no-hyperbole fascist party in America. Are we supposed to tolerate intolerance? Allow free speech to people who’d gladly ban it? Give fair hearing to delusions and lies? Let candidates run who want to end elections? Does it still make sense to play by the rules of democracy when one side’s abandoned them?
The fictional dilemma in Primary Colors was, per the title, set in an intra-party primary, not an inter-party general election, so I don’t know—maybe Democrats would still have some reservations about taking down a fellow Dem with an old scandal. And it’s not as if we’d know about it if some noble candidate had decided to sit on potentially scandalous revelations as a collegial courtesy to a rival. It’s just hard to imagine many people today on either side of the political divide feeling more than a vestigial twinge of regret over such a move. So far as I can tell Republicans don’t seem to experience any cognitive dissonance between ends and means at all: they’re comfortable voting for a pathological liar and serial philanderer who’s been sued for fraud and accused of sexual harassment more times than anyone can count because he represents their religious values. I’m not sure at what point Democrats repented of their own ideological purity. Maybe it started back in 2004, when they nominated a Vietnam vet for the Presidency, reasoning that, since Republicans like war, surely they’d vote for a veteran over a silver-spoon draft dodger, only to see their candidate vilified specifically for his service record. Or maybe it was in 2017, after they vainly sacrificed a senator to demonstrate their uncompromising consistency to people for whom ethics are a fastidious affectation, like holding your pinky out to drink tea, and hypocrisy not just second nature but more like an article of faith.
It’s been feebly cheering to see a congressional committee publicly investigating the January 6th attack on the Capitol, and watch the noose slowly tighten around Trump’s wattled throat, like an echo of the old Watergate hearings—that reassuring sense of the system working, the truth coming out, order restored—but there’s also something alarmingly ineffectual, dithery and Weimarish about it all. Elected officials and civil servants are still trying to build a convincing case and demonstrate incontrovertible guilt, but a lot of the electorate have simply seceded from our consensual reality, declaring an independent Confederacy of comforting disinformation and paranoid delusion. We’re still plotting how to win elections while they’re plotting how to overturn them; we’re urging people to get out and vote while they’re installing apparatchiks to reject any outcomes they don’t like. When one side has abandoned the most fundamental rules, trying to enforce them starts to feel like a suckers’ game. We’re like a team in a huddle strategizing which play is gonna get past our opponents’ defense, not realizing that the other team has brought guns, and it’s not a game anymore.
Like a lot of progressives, I wish the Democratic party—the only one I get to choose from, unfortunately—were both more idealistic and uncompromising in its principles and more pragmatic and vicious in its methods. A reader of Robert Caro’s biographies, I often think wistfully of Lyndon Johnson, a sociopathic monster on the side of the angels who finally made the Civil Rights Act happen (“rammed through” is the idiom writers always seem to use) through flattery, arm-twisting, bribery and intimidation, shamelessly sucking up to anyone who could advance his ambitions, destroying anyone who got in his way, and betraying every rich bigoted good old boy who ever helped get him elected. When I heard that the Senator from Coal, who’d seemed determined to single-handedly condemn us all to a slow roasting death, had abruptly dropped his opposition to a climate change bill, I hoped it was because the Democrats had finally taken my urgent mental counsel and presented him with some long-withheld video of himself in bed with a farm animal. Traditional politics and parliamentary procedure seems so paltry and inadequate now, obsolete. I can’t help thinking that if I were the parent of a child murdered in a school shooting, what would possibly stop me from riddling the limo of an NRA lobbyist with a full thirty-round magazine from a legally purchased AK-47 for rhetorical effect? I wonder how many of you, after the supreme court revoked half the country’s rights over their own bodies, also caught yourself entertaining idle but satisfying daydreams about extralegal remedies? Much as it cheered me to imagine, on some level I recognized it as symptomatic of a serious sickness in the body politic, and the soul. There was a time in recent history—within my lifetime—when it wasn’t uncommon for political figures to get shot. It was not a healthy time for this country.
Jack Stanton, the twinkly-eyed candidate played by John Travolta in Primary Colors, dismisses the ethical qualms that trouble the protagonist as “fine points… how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” Politicians have always had to pander and scheme, he argues, so that they could be in a position to take principled stands when it really mattered. That moment of truth never quite arrived for the Clintons—except, perhaps, for Hilary’s concession speech. (Only now that we can no longer take them for granted can concessions seem inspiring.) The current President, a near-octogenarian, is a relic of a more civil era, before Trump, even before Newt Gingrich, back when politicians on different sides of the aisle still went to the same parties and sent their kids to the same schools; he still believes in the old game of consensus and compromise. He’s accomplished far more through those unglamorous methods than anyone had expected. What actually brought Joe Manchin around, as reported by legitimate media, was more boring than blackmail, involving a persuasive report from the Wharton Business School about the effects of the proposed legislation on inflation and a shit-ton of giveaways to the fossil fuel industry. The coming elections will be a referendum not only on this administration, on one party or the other, or on abortion or any particular issue, but on the old civics-class virtues of parliamentary democracy. Some of us are content to keep incrementally reforming the corrupt dysfunctional system worked out through trial and error by flawed human beings over centuries, but there’s a significant percentage of the population who aren’t ready for the dull uncertainties of modernity, and still long for a charismatic alpha ape, for rule by violence and divine sanction, blood and magic.
I still remember the day the Starr Report was made public, the way some people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot. We were in the car somewhere out west, en route to Burning Man; Webmaster Dave was reading aloud from the newspaper transcript of Monica Lewinsky’s testimony. I remember how his voice shriveled with distaste as he read about the stained dress, the soiled cigar, genuinely regretful at having to inflict that knowledge on the rest of us. It felt like we’d been forced unwillingly across some line we couldn’t step back over. I can’t imagine what we would have said if you’d told us then that one day we would look back on it as a more innocent time.
 “If you want an exquisite example of that ‘I can’t believe this was a compelling enough dilemma to be the engine of this plot,’” a friend wrote me, “try Broadcast News. Holy hell, was that an interesting movie to watch, in light of [gestures broadly].” Broadcast News’s crisis of conscience hinges on a journalist inserting faked cutaway footage of himself tearing up in response to an interview subject.