Friday, January 27, 2017

Seeking an explanation

One of the blogs I follow regularly is No Caption Needed.  As the "About" page there says: "No Caption Needed is a blog dedicated to public discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society." The posts at the blog deliver thoughful ideas about photography, something that is seldom accomplished eslewhere.  The last installment takes up the question of what photographs of the election period made a significant contribution to the largely unexpected Trump win.  The conclusion reached by the blog authors was that the role of photography and photojournalism was insignificant compared to an over-all failure based on language and logic.

I don't disagree with the No Caption Needed take on the question posed, but explaining something that did not happen is not in the end very revealing.  It seems to me that it might have been more useful to point out that the failure of photojournalism to come to grips with Trump and his followers was part of a larger failure of journalism in general.  Also overlooked was the fact that photojournalism is inextricably intertwined with words, unlike photography that is conducted for more purely aesthetic ends.  And, finally, some respect needs to be given to the well-known fact that people hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see.

I also think it is possible to move a step closer to an explanation of the role of images in the political process with the thought that both supporters and opponents of Trump are seeing essentially the same thing when they look at either still or moving images of the guy, and that they are actually arriving at many of the same conclusions regarding Trump's character.  I don't think it requires  a college degree to perceive that Trump is an ignorant, arrogant narcissist.  I do think many, perhaps most, Trump supporters see Trump as exactly that kind of person.  What differentiates the supporters from the opponents is that the former believes it is ok to have such a flawed personality in the Presidency.  It is a cynical and desperate viewpoint, for sure, and it overlooks a lot of potential fallout, but it don't think it is a question of misjudging character.

There is a useful analogy available which I think supports the foregoing analysis.  Consider for a moment the TV ads promoting the sleazy, ambulance-chasing lawyers who promise to aggressively represent people who have been the victims of accidents, bad luck and general powerlessness.  While the personalities are repellent and the message implies no particular adherence to real principles of justice, those characteristics clearly have some appeal for people confronting a desperate reality.  I think a lot of Trump supporters see themselves in a similar position regarding the possibilities of their individual futures.  Which is not to say that such a world view is representative of all of Trump's backers.  In fact, Trump supporters have been shown to be doing better economically than the average.  But, that is another piece of the story, the details of which need to be teased out by other means.

So, in the end there is no single magic key to explaining the Trump phenomenon.  My own view is that the media focus on Presidential politics has tended to obscure underlying causes of the current disaster.  I think the real answer to Trumpism is more likely to be found in local, grassroots organizing which can effectively combat hopeless and desperation.  Whether there is time now for that process to take place before disaster overwhelms us all is an open question.

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