Two Cathedrals: the contrasting rhetoric of Obama and Romney

Nicky Woolf reports from two very different events in north-west Ohio

U2, inescapable at Democrat events, plays over the public address system at the basketball arena at Bowling Green State University, north Ohio. The crowd – there are more than five thousand people here – is young, diverse, and when Obama steps out, visibly starstruck. He is slighter than he appears on television, but when he speaks you find you already know the voice from a thousand newscasts and YouTube clips. He is at home here; he grows behind the podium, speaking with the cadence of a preacher, building rhetorical castles in the air, winding the audience up to a climax of fervour. They respond with adulation. “Try to bend your knees,” he says to those standing. “We've had some people faint before...”

Julian Gillilan, a music student at BGSU, is here because the President “is for college students, and minority groups. He's on our side.” His friend Tristan Saffron-Cottrell, who has a shock of blond-tipped hair, is studying graphic design. He is for Obama because “I believe in the same rights and beliefs, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice. I take these things strongly to heart. Lots of [us] students are more democratic, and because we're a younger crowd, we believe in rights.”

And Romney? “He's a dumbass. I think government should be more open to things he's not – like abortion rights, anti-gun policies...” he pauses, looks suddenly shy. “And I don't think the government has a right to tell anyone who they are allowed to love.”

Morgan Palmucci, studying Spanish language education here, is worried about her college loans. “[Obama]'s standing up for everyone's basic right to go to college. He's fighting to make it affordable, to give everyone a chance.”

But the crowd is not just composed of die-hard fans. Allan Rubenstein, a 19-year-old visual communications technology student, says he hasn't yet made his mind up. He has come here to see what the president has to say. I ask what he wants to hear. “I don't know. Answers. I have an open mind: I'll see what he has to offer.”

***

In a way, Obama and Romney are each preaching from the other's pulpit today. Bowling Green may have a large student population, but it is the county seat of a relatively rural county with a sizeable Catholic population. It may have voted for Obama in 2008, but almost all its county officials are now Republican. Toledo, where Romney is due to speak later that afternoon, is a big auto industry town, quite poor, and quite racially diverse. Union country. Democrat country. “Fuck Romney,” the cab driver taking me to the convention centre says with feeling when he learns who I am on my way to see.

Governor Romney's audience is considerably smaller than Obama's. It is much older, much whiter, and much more male-dominated too. Old men mutter in the background unselfconsciously over the people speaking, as if talking at a television set. A giant green digital debt-clock, twenty feet high, speeds upwards ominously. Country music plays. Like Paul Ryan two days ago, when Romney emerges he is played in by Kid Rock's 'Born Free'.

Campaigning is about repetition. The same message played over and over again by two of America's cleverest people, repeated with very slight amendments over and over again in town halls, sports arenas, car parks, factories and airfields around the country; planed and moulded but essentially the same each time. The game is about folding local events, local stories, into that message. In Lima on Monday, Paul Ryan brought the local tank factory seamlessly into his defence cuts narrative. The narrative itself will be the same everywhere, however: only the name of the plant changes.

In 2008, on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, I met then-vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden. He shook my hand, leaned in close and told me, with a twinkle in his eye: “if I had your hair, I'd be President.”

I was more than a little deflated some while later, when I discovered that Biden says this to pretty much everyone he meets with hair. The same charming line, the same twinkle of the eye, over and over and over again. You see why they say politics is bad for the soul?

Endless repetition can trip some candidates up. Romney today, near the end of his speech, said: “you've been outside for a long time now, but I want to tell you one last thing.” A slight wince was very briefly visible on his face, as he realised he was speaking to an audience at an indoor arena. But with speeches and quips that are all learned by rote, such slips are occasionally inevitable.

***

This morning, the candidates will have read a New York Times poll that gives Obama a bracing ten-point lead in Ohio; enough to give the President plenty of breakfast cheer, and enough for Romney allow a single un-businesslike sob escape into his morning cappuccino; but if you had not seen them at breakfast and just watched them speak, you may well have thought the polls had been the opposite. Romney, for all his awkwardness, is light-hearted; he looks suspiciously like he's having fun.

Romney, though hoarse-voiced, talks more like a comedian, peppering his speech with a stand-up's patter. “China has been holding down its currency. What does that do? I'll tell you what that does...” You wouldn't catch such down-home familiarity in Obama's speaking style, and the audience in Toledo is charmed, banging their blue and white inflatable noise-sticks together with fervour.

Obama, on the other hand, speaks with grim, tight-lipped determination and a preacher's oratory inflection. Not even when the line “...and Osama Bin Laden is dead” produced applause so strong he is rocked backwards involuntarily on his heels from the force of it does he allow himself even the glimmer of a grin. He is a serious man.

The audiences are looking for different things, too. While many of Obama's audience tell me the economy is a concern - especially that part of it that pertains to student loans - they put social freedoms firmly above economic concerns. When I ask members of Romney's audience what issues are important to them, however, they are unequivocal. “The economy, the debt,” says Diane Ninke, sat with her husband next to me in the stands. “The economy. It's the economy,” agrees Joe Sipple; “the economy is head and shoulders over the rest.” Another supporter echoes Bill Clinton: “it's the economy, obviously.”

Romney's speech reflects this. He is a man who knows what his potential voters are concerned about: the price of gas, already mentioned three times in the speeches before him, gets another two checks in his first five minutes. “Gas prices have doubled” is the unofficial rallying-cry of the Romney-Ryan campaign.

And then there's that gigantic sinister debt-clock behind the stage. It would be unfair to call this a campaign of fear, despite slogans like “Ohio can't afford another four years like the last.” American politics has seen far worse, and the Obama campaign's ads (“Get Real, Mitt!”) aren't that far from the mud either. But Romney's is certainly a campaign of concentrated financial nervousness.

This would have turned Rubenstein off: the undecided first-time voter at Obama's rally did not like it when the president referred to his rival. “Obviously he's his opponent, so he has to bash him. It did put me off a little bit. But it's politics, isn't it.” He shrugs, and tells me he is still undecided: “I have to go away and do a lot of reading.”

Outside the Romney rally, the heavy afternoon rain has left great pools of standing water. A little girl of about seven or eight is being led between the puddles by her mother. A politician might describe this in terms of an economic metaphor, in which the puddles represent recession and the mother represents, perhaps, fiscal prudence. Unaware of her symbolism, the girl cries out in joy as she passes me, her arms jangling with badges as she skips. “That was super-exciting! I got lots of Romney stuff!”

Make of that what you will.

Obama speaks at Bowling Green State University. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era