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The power of an image

The power of an image

Our president took a break last week from the chaos enveloping his administration to bumble his way across the Middle East. While in Saudi Arabia, he joined the leader of the most extreme government on the planet to inaugurate that country’s suitably Orwellian “Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology.” As part of the ceremony, he joined two other tyrants in placing their protective hands over a glowing globe. If you photo-shopped the President into an image from a Bond movie or Lord of the Rings, you still couldn’t top the sense of villainous dread radiating from that picture.

That picture is a gift. For the narratives it reinforces and the narratives it erodes, it might be the most politically toxic image of a President that we have ever seen. Democrats will waste it, because they still don’t know how to win campaigns in a post-patronage climate.

There is no substance in that picture other than the already obvious ineptitude of Donald Trump and his idiotic handlers. No one should have let a US President get cornered into that terrible photo-op. At a rational level, that photo just tells us that this administration is riddled with incompetence.

A rational interpretation of that photo is meaningless in electoral terms. Moving voters depends on imagery, emotion and mythology. Does it make sense for a state legislative candidate to pair that picture with a random image of Paul Ryan and a shot of his opponent? It makes just as much sense as depicting Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland with Osama bin Laden in the 2002 campaign. It is nonsense, but it’s winning nonsense.

Rationalists on the right and left love to make intelligent arguments from facts. That process is important, but only for its role in defining elite processes and plans. At the level of the voting public, arguments that take shape in the opinion pages of the New York Times are flakes flying in a snow globe. They never land in the real world.

If you want to win electoral support for sound, intelligent public policies, build a mythology to support them. Symbols, archetypes, stories; those are the building blocks of opinion and activism. Developing a rational, well-considered plan with appropriate citations is very important for planners and administrators. It does nothing to move mass politics. Of all the stories that move people, the strongest and cheapest are centered around a villain or a monster. Stories, not logic, are the delivery mechanism for effective public policy.

Every Democrat running for dogcatcher for the next ten years should find a way to work that picture of Donald Trump into their campaign media. It should be leveraged to define everything you are against. If there is anything Democrats should have learned from the politics of the last twenty years, it’s this – people care a lot less about what you’re for, than what you’re against. If you want to move people, you need to define your enemy. That image defines your enemy. You don’t have to add a word to it.

Pink-hatted crowds that flooded the National Mall on Inauguration weekend weren’t there to fight for access to health care or protect reproductive rights. Those were the values they carried with them, not the values that moved them. They were pushed off their couches by their loathing of a dangerous enemy. Hardly anyone showed up at their Congressman’s office in 2009 to press them to support the ACA. All the heat came from the opposition – from the people who felt threatened.

That picture has the power to move voters. Place it in front of hardened StormTrumpers over and over and over. You won’t win their votes, but you’ll jam their messaging and frustrate their outreach. For a bunch of racists, especially the dumbest ones, seeing their hero joining hands with an Arab prince over a glowing orb is a mind-scrambling contradiction. It is a headache in a jpg. Meanwhile, the 15-20% of Trump voters who supported him out of novelty or indifference will waver under that barrage.

Stories win. Logic loses. Use that gift.


  1. I’m going to push back on this one;

    I’m bad at knowing what rightwing nutjobs think about basically anything, so if you want to sell me the concept that this image in any way damages their appreciation for their Blue Collar Billionaire MAGA Daddy maybe I could see something there, but from the left side I see no traction here..

    I am good at noticing when the leftwing has no argument that matters or sticks, and their treatment of 45’s journey abroad is absolutely that situation. There is nothing about these images that can’t be given the bipartisan twist except maybe Melania slapping his Cheetoh fingers away.

    This image you show above, if it were Obama, the liberals would love. There would be memes about how he’s a bad-ass mage from Dungeons & Dragons because Obama is geek chic. They’d look at rightwing nutballs going apeshit over it as all part of the joke, angry partisans reading too much into an innocuous theatre lighting of international power.

    So maybe I’m wrong here and rightwing nutjobs think differently, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they look at this image as another proof of the big gold dealmaker’s dealmaking. This image comes, after all, with a $110billion arms deal with $350billion more to come in the near future.

    One way I can tell when the liberals have no argument is when they fall back into boring, feckless both-sidism. Check it:

    Meanwhile this is the meme wingnuts are looking at:

    I found this while searching for the top one.

    Analyzing the political fallout of these images is pretty much partisan free association. Each side is just grabbing whichever image fits their narrative and running with it. There is no there there.

    This image will do nothing and will be forgotten tomorrow. What does matter is whether Congress decides to hold Flynn in contempt of court:

    The rest is set decoration.

    1. On this note, it’s actually worth noting that the liberal disdain for Trump’s lack of ‘class’ with all his gaudy gold and ridiculous 15th century monarchy chic is part of his appeal to white trash in the first place. As another whimsical almost forgettable meme said, “Trump is a poor man’s idea of a rich man.”

      Full meme here:

      Do powerless racists get off at gothic images of mage-orb superpower as long as that super power is ‘their side?’ Again, I don’t understand them so you tell me, but I don’t see why some dumbass can’t look at that picture and say, “Hell yeah that guy’s in control.”

    1. That IS a good speech. Thoughtful, erudite. I like what he said about symbols and the creation of new symbols. (Given the background image he chose, he certainly understands their power.)

      Over the weekend, at dinner, a couple of friends said they thought the removal of the statues was an attempt to destroy history.

      I just shook my head. I don’t argue with them any more. Truly, they only listen to fox.

    2. Sorry if I posted this link in the past.

      It’s an excellent discussion of monuments, memorials, and the difference between the two.


      “Why do we name some monuments (like the Washington Monument) and others memorials? Danto’s answer is a model of clarity: “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.” ”

    3. What a lovely speech… what a difference doing the right thing can make. I am so moved by this… as an African, seeing this happen reaffirms what America really stands for and what it can really be… even if it takes a long road to get there.

  2. > If there is anything Democrats should have learned from the politics of the last twenty years, it’s this – people care a lot less about what you’re for, than what you’re against. If you want to move people, you need to define your enemy.

    Problem is, too many people think that Democrats already have an enemy — straight cis white male. And Democrats are not doing nearly enough to dissuade people of that notion.

    1. And your point is? Look, I understand that in order to govern, you have to win, and to that end, unsavory tactics and strategies are too often a necessity, but that should never be an excuse for decrying them or for the state of our system in permitting them. Call it hypocritical, but no matter how tough things get and even if we have to crawl through the proverbial dirt, we still have to stay true to our ideals. If we don’t and just shrug our shoulders, saying “well, that’s just the way things are”, then we’re going to lose something terribly important.

      1. @Ryan: Sorry, obviously my point wasn’t as clear as I thought it was.

        My point was simply to say “Yes, it’s disgusting what our politics has devolved into, and many of us including Chris share your revulsion.”

    1. I agree with both of you guys. I am 100% nerd. I love facts, I revel in knowledge, and I have great respect for well constructed arguments. If I must pick one aspect of Trump that offends me the most (and I’m picking from a long list) it would be how he bullshits his way through things he knows nothing about (and to add insult to injury, it’s not even well crafted bullshit). But Chris is right in pointing out that there are a whole lot of people who just don’t give a damn about any of that. So if that picture is all they can understand, then keep shoving it in their faces.

      Damn, have things gone nuts since I last posted here. No shock at the ongoing implosion, just the speed and Trump being even stupider than I expected. And I expected plenty of stupid!

    2. EJ

      If we’re going to use stories, let’s not mess about.

      “Long ago, a prophet foretold that a great city would be built in northern Illinois, on the banks of the lake; that this city would become the slaughterhouse to the world; and that it would be called Red City, Emerald City and White City by its inhabitants. The city would grow great, commemorated by architects and Blues Brothers alike, but would suffer misrule and racial disharmony until such time as its rightful kings came fleeing from Texas and restored justice.

      “We can delay the coronation no further. Every day that Chris I is prevented from being crowned as the rightful king of Chicago and protector of Illinois, its problems will remain unsolved. Donald Trump, will you recognise the rightful rule of the Ladd Dynasty?”

      There. That’s a better story, and one that can be used as a talking point in almost every situation. If you really want glowing orbs in it, it’d be easy enough to add them as part of the prophecy scene.

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