Great TV that explains Trump’s Support — Travel in Trumpland with Ed Balls.
By now you’ve probably seen the images of Jim Acosta CNN’s chief White House correspondent, painted and a baying crowd within arm shot, whipped up by President Trump, from accusing CNN and others of being “dishonest”, “fake news” and “Enemy of the people”. Dissections, analysis and commentary per usual followed, by pundits.
News continues to do what it sets out by covering the political events, with an exposed achilles. One of my most popular posts when the President was elected “#Epic fail..” spoke about this. The very methods and styles, it’s grown into, can be decoded them and us.
A lack of diversity ( not just black and white, but background) and diverse approach can be reformulated as not being privy to other people’s way of life. We’ve seen this in the UK as well. In the mid 1990s when a newspaper introduced videojournalism, reporters dressed down and were able to embed themselves into neighbourhoods for periods of time. Not so much now.
I also became aware first hand, what it means to write about the 45. Opinions seem to be shaped even before people have finished reading through the article, so bear with me on this.
News’ achilles is its perceived onerous regard for social context and sometimes dogmatic approach. Many years ago working in South Africa I met one of my heroes, Peter Jennings. He was part of a journalism type then we seem to be missing now: laconic, on camera seemingly interested in people, and equally in what they had to say.
So often now what we get is the apex, grab-your attention-images, with a lack of considered social awareness before and after. Mainly, but not exclusively that takes time and access to people — and here’s where television news exposes its underbelly.
This week a British television show did something scarcely any news programme has managed. Ed Balls, a former British politician for the Labour Party travelled to the deep south and Trump land e.g. Alabama in an eponymous titled film: Travel in Trumpland with Ed Balls.
In the first of a series of 40 minute travelogue/ feature docs, Ed Balls could be seen taking a “going native”, considered approach to try and understand the president’s base.
I recognise the method. In Apartheid South Africa 1990s working as freelance BBC Reporter, I made it my point to listen mainly because I didn’t consider myself an expert, and the method enabled me access to farmland Afrikaners in heartland Orange state who held strong views against blacks, Hermanus home to the wealthy, and various Townships.
Television always looks for the exceptional for its talking points, which can often be a caricature of society. In Ed Balls’ Trump land the producers found their characters: a black man content to be called a redneck. The term was freely used by the subject and others.
Then there was a Mexican hard-working mother serving food at a Southern car derby. She voted Trump and would welcome a wall being built. She also swam her way over from Mexico; something that would have had her arrested the presenter noted. Military vets who say they’ve felt the increase in monetary care the president had made available to them.
And then there was ICE going about their work. A man dealing drugs, with an American family was being deported back to Afghanistan, a place he knew little about from contemporary memory. All the while what struck you was the logic of their conversations. It was cogent. You may disagree, but it’s something the presenter listened to and could respect. The complexities of human nature are never so easily discernible. To the black character, the Southern flag was about values. And what about slavery and Charlottesville asked Balls. In short the man acknowledged the flags past, but he wanted to move on and Charlottesville, well the president said there were bad people on both sides. Well…Ball’s straining, but deciding what do you think viewer?
But I reserved the most attention and acceptance for layered knowledge when Ed Balls met with a former WWE wrestling star Johnny Slaughter. If you work in journalism, or have any interest in trying to understand Trump and his support, this was a petri-dish experiment that neatly fitted together. Yes, it’s not the only reason, but this layer provided context.
Balls understands the role wrestling plays in US entertainment and hints as if there might be clues with US politics meeting Slaughter at his gym in Alabama. Frankly you only need to mention Jesse Ventura to get going with this thesis. Ventura a wrestler came from know where to win a governorship of Minnesota by tapping into his wrestling base back in 1999. I was on the web then and marvelled at the story.
Ninety eight percent of the people in Mumford Alabama voted for Trump. There’s an opening for a wrestler in the evening says Slaughter. Would Balls like to step in? Balls hesitates and quite quickly agrees. This is something you’ll not see in archetypal journalism.
Ed’s performance is about to reap dividends. He’s given a leotard with the British flag sown on, asks his wife Yvette Cooper also an MP what she thinks via face time. She lets him know he’s crossed the line.
Then the stage performance begins. Slaughter convinces Balls to be painted the villain. Balls obliges. His very demeanour is repulsive to the audience and Slaughter knows, as he says on tape how to play, the crowd, so much so in one wrestling competition when he played the bad guy, a Russian, he was physically stabbed in the back by someone in the audience.
After prancing around as the villianous Brit, Slaughter comes in, the saviour, the restorer of nationalism and pride. This pride we’re told earlier has everything to do with being hard working, family loving and playing hard too.
The script goes to plan and Ed Balls is knocked out. The blows he’s received and thrust onto the canvas are shown as pantomime.
In the dressing room after. Balls asks, have you ever seen the crowd of 400 people this angry. Slaughter replies on a couple of occasions but this was visceral. Balls draws a comparison between wrestling and politics.
And here Slaughter provides an easy-to-see explanation worthy of a PhD
Trumps language is straight out of WWE. He probably means what he says, but it’s dialled up in what Slaughter refers to in wrestling language as “getting over”. Slaughter continues, “I create a desire that I want you to get beat up and then I give it to them”. Casting the baddy and the goody is all part of wrestling, but while it’s fun in the ring, outside it can yield different consequences.
Slaughter sanguine and measured is asked whether he voted for Trump. He did he says adding the people you want to see run for president never run. The who you want to see fix this have no desire and so you’re left with these choices. “Isn’t it sad?” he concludes. There’s no hubris in saying this. Clinton it was established earlier, like it or not, is viewed much like Ed Ball’s character in the ring; snooty, out of touch.
Now these points can be contested. You may even write in feeling enraged, but that’s not the point here. This programme asked you to listen and watch, and yes Balls does a Donahue rendition at the end where he makes the point Politics isn;t like the wrestling ring where things are black and white, so Trump is playing with fire.
But that’s not before Slaughter delivers a piece of transitive logic. If the president is playing a character that got him into the White House then you better stay in Character of your want to stay there, but he and a colleague add the president needs to dial it back.
The play in North Korea, Nato, Iran, and UK, all seem to fit that pattern. The villain out there, the hard and bellicose rhetoric, and then the appeasement, as the President in the eyes of his supporters see nationalism, pride, and going the extra mile to make peace with your adversaries as part of the value system to which they agree. Iran is the next state to be unconditionally provided a peace leaf.
Meanwhile, the accusations with the press continues, and whilst the press can only do what they do by filming, no one as yet has found a way to get the President out of the metaphorical ring and free from a count.
In his famous book of the 1900s Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, this French philosopher ascertained the dynamics of stirring up a crowd. It matters less who are as an individual, but that as a unitary body you all work together.
That much we know Trumps has mastered with his chosen meme: U.S.A.