In The Master and Margarita, the devil comes to 1930s Moscow. There, he mostly goes about ruining the lives of the bureaucrats who populate the Soviet artistic set — and undermining the artifice in the Communist system (at one point, he gives out free money). He starts all this by telling a disbeliever how he will die; late that afternoon, he does.
This is a weird, sort of inexplicable moment in American politics. Donald Trump is polling well, and keeps polling better! But rather than theorize about why this is so, let's instead accept Trump as the constant variable — and examine the results his arrival in the 2016 campaign have produced.
Republicans (and Democrats) courted this — reread the pages of Double Down in which Mitt Romney worries someone else has captured Trump’s endorsement — and now Trump has come to collect. Rick Perry criticizes him; Trump posts a picture of the two of them. Lindsey Graham criticizes him; Trump reads his phone number on air. Gawker posts his phone number; he posts it, too.
The reality of Donald Trump is that he is the perfect, mutant inverse of what a serious political candidate looks like in America. If they take pains to smooth over the incoherence inherent in their past positions, he does not. If they sound artificial, he sounds like himself. If they are safe, he isn’t. If they do the correct thing, he does the opposite.
Who cares if this is (or isn’t) the source of his appeal? The part that matters is what Donald Trump — the grinning skeleton in the crowd — accentuates in acid neon about everyone else. Consider what happens when Trump (inevitably) leaves. Will anything about this race actually change? Will the candidates be loose and principled, engaging in natural but sturdy human discourse?
Or will we be entreated to more digital campaigning, as the serious candidates solidify their waxy anonymity?
For instance, Hillary Clinton has been liking photos on Instagram — not excessively, but enough that if you regularly check the activity feed on Instagram, you’ll catch the stray like.
Rather than Trump, it’s the Taylor Swift strategy: projecting exactly the message you want to everyone and then creating moments of connection (a favorited tweet, a personal comment on Instagram), between celebrity and individual, on the most immediate level — something Swift's done to shift from one message to another. And this is actually a good idea! People tell their friends about things like this. People remember things like this.
Except: Authenticity requires intimacy — or its perfect approximation. Taylor Swift seems like she might have the time and interest (even if she doesn’t) to search her own name on Instagram; politicians do not. Taylor Swift has a cohesive, distinctive voice that creates expectations for what she would do and sound like in these small spaces; politicians (often) do not. Taylor Swift may seem corporate; political campaigns are corporations, comprising dozens and ultimately hundreds of operatives, all filtered through one message-bound voice.
If John Kasich actually texted you right now, you’d never believe it. You wouldn’t even know what to expect. And not without reason: While Hillary Clinton spoke with reporters and patrons inside a New Hampshire restaurant last month, Hillary Clinton also liked four photos on Instagram.
"It's sort of frustrating,” Snapchat’s founder said earlier this year, “when brands come onto our service and try to act like a person.”
“Because they're not."
This is hard enough for regular people — you get an email or a text from someone for the first time sometimes, and it sounds nothing like them. It requires enormous effort from Swift. And it’s a central difficulty in campaigning not specific to Twitter, only heightened by it: How do you deliver a carefully constructed message with authenticity?
“The trick, of course, is making that work look invisible. The toughest thing a performer can do is make it look as if it comes easy,” Justin Timberlake, of all people, once told Playboy, articulating this kind of difficulty. This is all performance, creeping into the smallest spaces.
And with this in mind, here is something that does not look effortless:
It’s almost like each time Clinton tweets, someone fires up an old diesel generator, listens to it churn away for a while and then, when it’s ready, turns, cups his hands, and shouts, "ALL RIGHT, HERE COMES THE TWEET."
You can feel the labor that goes into this. The tweets often evoke an elaborate pasteurization process, wherein aides calculate what needs to be said (topic) with the maximal amount of safety (substance, tone). Since her campaign officially began in April, the tweets have at least moved into a space of more transparent electioneering (“Win a free trip to meet Hillary. Need we say more?” You needn’t!). Prior to this, when the tweets were supposedly just from Clinton herself, they never really sounded like something she — or anyone else — might say.
And actually, we do know what Clinton’s online voice sounds like. We just read a bunch of her email! She, for instance, can be quite warm. And she, like Jeb Bush, is sarcastic — a trait that often requires a setup, and doesn't always scale well to a mass audience, especially in politics.
This extends far beyond Clinton, however. Like, say, this:
This underscored a message never explicitly stated by the campaign, but frequently implied: Marco Rubio is young and Hillary Clinton is like one of the Wright brothers.
Rubio’s primarily made this point by repeating the factual statement, “Yesterday is over, and it’s not coming back.” On Twitter, this produces weird moments, like when he held up Mad Men — a show that, e.g., featured the rape of a beloved character on the floor of Don Draper’s office and generally held that people cannot change — as dedicated to the greatness of the 20th century.
The absurdity can't truly be appreciated, though, until you see two accounts interact with each other in public about something private and we all look on, admiring the exchange, like we’re scientists in Flowers for Algernon and observing sudden sentience.
Even worse is when the accounts of married public figures flirt with each other, and whose job is that?
Besides sounding like the premise of a New York Times “Vows” column ("Though they’d never met, they were two halves of a jocose duo, exchanging 140-character quips across the Chicago headquarters…"), the more you dwell on the nature of these interactions — that staffers actually perform as Barack and Michelle Obama, who are both serious public figures and, you know, actual people — the more insane it becomes.
This is what we have to work with or without Trump! The system is still the same, whether the devil is here or not.
A friend once theorized to me that the reason everyone blanches at bad corporate tweets is simple: They’re a sudden shock reminder of how corporatized American life is, ingrained in each aspect of our lives, down to even the smallest tweet.
It’s like the lights going up in a frat house at the end of a party. Everything’s technically the same, and yet, now it’s terrible.
I don’t quite agree with his theory, though. It’s not that corporations — or, in this case, politicians — lurk among us, approximating human behavior in the most calculating of ways. It’s the other way around: A bad, false note makes the entire enterprise suddenly seem very thin.
It's not that “Marco Rubio” grafts Mad Men onto another subject. It’s not that “Bill Clinton” and “Barack Obama” exchange stupid messages. It's not that “Hillary Clinton” likes photos on Instagram.
It’s the actual realization you have at 2 a.m. in the basement of the fraternity, in the blinding, fluorescent haze:
WHAT AM I DOING?