It is said that every US presidential election gets an October Surprise; a little jolt of chaos into the regimented order of a campaign that strikes in the few weeks before election day, a bit of news that by cynical design or naïve accident might make or break the hopes of a candidate.
The term has its origins in the politics of the Vietnam War, when Lyndon Johnson, in the final months of his second term, tried to help his vice-president Hubert Humphrey’s election campaign by announcing a halt to bombing on 30 October, 1968. It was first referred-to as such during the following election cycle, when Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser to incumbent president Nixon, turned Johnson’s tactic against the Democrats by announcing that “we believe peace is at hand” in Vietnam on 26 October, 1972.
Just days before the 2000 election, a local Fox News affiliate station in Maine revealed that George W Bush had been arrested for drunk driving 24 years previously. For Mitt Romney in 2012, the October Surprise came in September, when the investigative magazine Mother Jones published a video of a fundraising event in which he said that 47 per cent of the US population was behind President Obama because they are “dependent on government, who believe they are victims.”
Joining the dots between these events is a theory called the Gutenberg Parenthesis. What it says roughly is that from the invention of the printing press to the arrival of the internet, information was tamed, stamped on paper, categorised in libraries, centralised. But the internet is a return to a supercharged version of the oral tradition of information transfer that preceded the Gutenberg press; peer-to-peer, shared between individuals. Wikipedia is the example par excellence, but the entire internet has made humans not users of a reference library but active participants in a living truth.
I was thinking about this last Friday, when, with just 11 days to go until the presidential election James Comey, the Obama-appointed director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – an organisation which had previously closed its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state – wrote an unprecedented letter to Congress saying that they had found a new bunch of emails which could be pertinent to the investigation.
They were found on the computer which long-time Clinton adviser Huma Abedin shared with her now-ex husband, the disgraced former congressman, disgraced former New York mayoral candidate and Anthony Wiener, as part of a separate investigation into allegations that Wiener had exchanged sexual pictures with a 15-year-old girl.
There is no suggestion that the new batch of Clinton emails constitute anything remotely criminal or beyond the scope of the previous investigation. The FBI has also said that it will take considerably longer than is left in this campaign to double-check these emails which are reported to total 650,000, which makes Comey’s decision to send the letter publicly all the more unaccountable.
Moreover, CNBC reported on Monday that Comey had argued privately against naming Russia as the state behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s emails that had leaked just before the conventions in July – leading to the abrupt resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz – on the grounds that it was too close to election day. The story was based on a single unnamed “former bureau official”, but if true it elevates Comey’s letter from an October Surprise to an October What The Actual Fuck Is He Playing At.
The 2016 election has already altered our entire perception of the concept of “surprise”, as insane week has followed insane week until the faces of the American body politic began to resemble those of the children on the psychedelic trip down the chocolate river in the 1971 cinematic classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory:
“There’s no earthly way of knowing / which direction they are going / is it raining, is it snowing / is a hurricane a-blowing / are the fires of hell a-glowing / is the grisly reaper mowing … [high-pitched, un-earthly scream]”.
It is hard to know what would be considered a surprise any more, after Trump’s hot-mic boasting about how being famous let him “just grab” women “by the pussy” was dismissed by his campaign as “locker-room talk”. After the dozen women came forward to accuse Trump of sexually assaulting them. After video surfaced of Clinton passing out from pneumonia at the 9/11 memorial ceremony when her campaign had insisted nothing was wrong with her health. After Trump got in that fight with the Pope. After he insinuated that Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s questions to him were somehow harsher because she had “blood coming out of her wherever”. After he mocked a disabled New York Times reporter. After he retweeted white supremacist Twitter accounts. What could possibly surprise us after all that?
To be honest: probably not this. Three calm, confident performances in the debates, as well as the sexual assault tape and allegations against her opponent, have propelled Clinton to a formidable lead in the polls. In the last week or two Trump has been narrowing the gap again as election day approaches, but according to polling aggregator 538.com – which gives Trump a 24 per cent chance of winning, up from just 11 per cent a fortnight ago but still not good odds – it is unclear what, if any, effect the Comey letter has had on the race.
Even if he narrows the gap, Trump has a sizeable electoral mountain to climb; partly because his national gains may not be reflected in certain key swing states, and partly because his campaign went so nuclear on the email server so early on that there’s a finite limit to the amount of outrage left in the right-wing psyche to whip up. Those who believe Clinton to be a crook already thought so before the Comey letter. To Clinton supporters and most independents, the letter is so bizarrely-timed as to be treated with suspicion, if not dismissed outright.
They say this is a post-truth election. If it is so, it must be partly down to the fragmentation of media, and the evaporation of trusted centralised truth – the end of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, the irreversible diffusion of information.
We believe those whom we are already conditioned to believe. To Trump’s supporters, Comey’s letter was an unnecessary confirmation of Clinton’s criminality. They already think she is the devil. Trump’s opponents already think he is the devil.
This election is no longer, and possibly never was, a battle between two people who disagree on many things but are working from a set of codified axioms of behaviour and, more fundamentally, a set of codified truths. Set adrift from those truths, politics has become about constructing a set of ad-hoc axioms as a foundation – in Trump’s case, as simple as Politicians are Bad, Trump is Good – and then constructing subjective truths on those axioms: Clinton is a Politician, therefore Clinton is Bad.
Any chance at a rigorous examination of ideas is lost. Politics is now artillery-fire between islands of free-floating abstraction, not a direct engagement of ideas. Each side considers the other evil, and the press – long since stripped of any claim it once had to be the gatekeepers of objective truth, partly by broadsheet primness and partly by cable news and tabloid hyperbole – is dismissed as biased whenever it disagrees with the core axioms possessed by the reader or viewer.
All of this would have been utterly alien to Johnson, Kissinger, Humphrey, and even Nixon. An October Surprise was an endgame move played on a familiar chessboard. Everyone involved – the politicians, the media, and the voters – were part of a game; a dirty game, but one that had rules.
It is clear to see from the 2016 campaign that the rules no longer exist; the chessboard is smashed, the pieces are scattered. The idea of an October Surprise used to be an acknowledgement that sometimes chaos breaks through the politeness of order. But now all is chaos, and nothing is a surprise.