Dream or Nightmare

REIMAGINING POLITICS IN AN AGE OF FANTASY


STEPHEN DUNCOMBE

“A must for anyone who wants the Left to overcome its purist shame!” —Slavoj Žižek

“A splendid plea for a politics rich in wit, sensuality, and aspiration.” —Andrew Ross

“One of the best political writers of his generation—makes an impassioned, eloquent, and entertaining case for a joyful aesthetic of dissent.” —Liza Featherstone

“Reminds us of the passion and creativity of a left political tradition worth reclaiming.” —Katrina vanden Heuvel

“One of those indispensable...books that progressives who are interested in strategies to achieve political power and goals must read.” —BuzzFlash

“This is not a wake-up call—what Duncombe asks of progressives is to dream better.” —Slate

“His persuasive and pyrotechnic display of radical political thinking draws on a quirky mix of models—celebrity culture, the video game Grand Theft Auto and Umberto Eco's idea of opera aperta or free interpretation of art.” —Publishers Weekly

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About the Book

Dream or Nightmare is a book of left wing strategy like no other: It proposes that, to compete with the right, progressives cannot depend on reason and hard fact. They must also deploy drama in the battle of ideas.

Donald Trump’s presidency has shown how this is done, albeit to ends that are deplorable. Abandoning logic and truth, the Fabulist in Chief conjures up spectacle to energize his base. Troops are dispatched to counter a fictional threat from convoys of helpless refugees. A powerful Supreme Court nominee is reduced to tears by accusations from a woman who has been sexually assaulted. Open fascists are described as “good people,” physical attacks on journalists are lauded in front of cheering crowds.

If they are to engage with this Barnum-like politics, leftists must learn how to communicate in today’s “vernacular of the spectacular,” invoking symbol and emotion themsleves, as well as truth. Matching the right in this fashion does not mean adopting its values. Rather Duncombe sets out what he calls a politics of “ethical spectacle.”

Of extraordinary relevance to the dark carnival of contemporary politics, this new edition of the book formerly known as Dream sets out an electrifying new vision of progressive politics that is both persuasive and provocative.

272 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-682191-82-8 • E-book 978-1-682191-83-5

About the Author

stephen duncombe author photo

Stephen Duncombe is Professor of Media and Culture at New York University and author and editor of six books on the intersection of culture and politics. Duncombe, a life-long political activist, co-founded a community-based advocacy group in the Lower East Side of Manhattan which won an award for “Creative Activism” from the Abbie Hoffman Foundation, and is currently co-director of the Center for Artistic Activism, a research and training organization that helps activists create more like artists and artists strategize more like activists.

Read an Excerpt

From the Preface to the new edition

Dream in an Age of Trump

I wrote Dream a decade ago. Tragically, it seems more relevant to­day than it was then.

At the time I was trying to understand the nature of politics in an age of fantasy and challenge a tendency amongst progressives to uncritically privilege rationality, reason and self-revelatory truth. With theories gleaned from the academy, and drawing upon two decades of activist experience, I aimed to provided tools and perspectives so that those left-of-center on the political spectrum might compete effectively on this unfamiliar landscape. Making the case for what I called “Dreampolitik,” I concluded my opening chapter with these words:

To embrace dreams as part of a winning strategy for progressive politics may be just a dream itself, but really, at this point, what do we have to lose?

A lot, as it turned out. The US Presidential election of 2016, for starters. Enter Donald Trump, real-estate celebrity and reality TV star, a non-politician who built his base by dreaming up night­mares of “bad hombres” streaming in over the borders, and trans­formed the election into a spectacle to end all spectacles. After rolling over his hapless reality-based Republican rivals in the pri­mary, Trump was left to face the Democratic contender, Hillary Clinton. Clinton was competent, knowledgeable and experienced; a self-described policy wonk who had a reasonable answer for ev­ery question posed to her. It was the perfect contest between the forces of fantasy and reality.

The match was fought with raucous rallies and incendiary tweets on one side, and staid press conferences and paid adver­tisements on the other. But the competition was played out most vividly, head to head, through a series of televised debates be­tween Trump and Clinton. In these debates Trump failed at the most basic levels of logical reasoning. His “facts” were immedi­ately refuted as lies, and his “arguments” consisted of a series of seemingly disconnected, but emotionally charged words and phrases. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, sounding every bit like the honor student she once was, coolly pointed what was fact and what was fiction and directed TV viewers to her website so they could check the facts themselves. To the intellectual class of pun­dits, pollsters and reporters it was obvious who was going to win. The New York Times Upshot polls were predicting a 93% chance of Clinton victory only weeks before the election. Truth Will Out!

How did the Liberal pundocracy get it so wrong? Simple: their projections were based upon the faulty assumption that the game Trump was playing was politics-as-usual. Not so. While Clinton and the field of Republican contenders were playing at politics, Trump was playing the game of pop culture spectacle and enter­tainment. Certainty there have been politicians who knew how to employ the tools and techniques of entertainment before. Hitler, infamously, took acting lessons and had pictures taken of himself to see how he would look in different dramatic poses. There are less extreme examples as well. Among US presidents, Eisenhower hired a commercial advertising company to create spots for his campaign, Kennedy parlayed his good looks into debate victo­ries on TV, Reagan was a bonafide, if B-grade, actor, and Hillary Clinton’s husband on the run-up to his successful presidential bid played saxophone, while wearing shades no less, on a late night TV talk show.

There is a difference, however, between these politicians and Donald Trump. They were using the means of entertainment to appear as stronger, friendlier, or more competent politicians than they, perhaps, actually were – taking Machiavelli’s advice to rulers that it is important to appear virtuous, even if one is not in reality. Trump was doing something different. He was not using tools of entertainment to appear a better politician, he was using poli­tics as a better stage for his performance as an entertainer. When asked if he would accept the results of the election, Trump ended the final presidential debate with a cliffhanger: “I will keep you in suspense.” It signaled nothing less than a paradigm shift.

Nowhere was this triumph of the values of spectacular enter­tainment more vividly displayed than Trump’s approach to facts and the truth. Quite simply, Trump made stuff up. Lots of stuff. This would seem to make him a liar, and certainly his opponents tried to paint him as such. But this characterization misses the point. Politicians have always stretched the truth, Trump simply disregarded it.

There are different modes of misrepresentation. The liar’s craft is falsity. Like the truth teller, he is guided by the authority of the truth. As such, the liar and the truth-teller play on the opposite sides of the same game. Playing a different game entirely is the Bullshitter. Harry Frankfurt, a professor of philosophy and author of the book On Bullshit, argues that the bullshitter, “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

The favored weapon to wield against the bullshitter is the fact check. A study conducted by the American Press Institute found that the number of fact-checking stories tripled between 2008 and 2012, and eight in ten Americans view political fact-checking favorably. Now, everyone with a smartphone can be an instant Alex Trebek. The “facts,” however, don’t seem to have the impact assumed: to change minds and thus decisions. When facts reveal that our beliefs are based upon lies, we simply ignore them, only paying attention, as Emma Roller underscores, “as long as those facts confirm [our] point of view.” Facts, it seems, are not things that are verifiably true or false, merely components in a story. And bullshit is a far more pliable material than facts for creating nar­ratives. Here is Frankfurt on bullshit again:

[T]he mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art.

Donald Trump has proven himself a master of The Art of (the) Bullshit.