The surreal experience of Donald Trump co-opting my writing for campaign propaganda
Five years ago, when I first moved from South Africa to Washington, D.C., I lived in a crummy basement room in Silver Spring, Maryland, and worked at an unpaid internship. I made a bit of cash tutoring organic chemistry on the side, but not nearly enough to prevent my pitiful bank balance from dwindling down like an action movie bomb timer on fast-forward.
If you'd told me then that in 2016, Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump would be using something I had written in a campaign advertisement, I wouldn't have been able to believe it, no matter what kind of proof you presented. Shootfire, I can barely believe it now. But lo and behold:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 26, 2016
If I had even a whisker of sympathy for Trump, I might have been a bit flattered at my work (headline: "Hillary Clinton needs to address the racist undertones of her 2008 campaign") being broadcast to such a tremendous audience. But this is just unsettling, and deeply, deeply bizarre.
First off, it is extremely uncomfortable being weaponized into propaganda by a political actor I loathe. Luckily, this gambit is extremely unlikely to work. Not only is Trump's popularity rating among minority populations cemented roughly around dengue fever levels, his attempts to cater to them come off as cloddish and tone-deaf. Furthermore, despite the fact that Clinton's 2008 campaign really did have some racist undertones, any attempt to hit her on behalf of Barack Obama will run headlong into the president himself out there campaigning vigorously for Clinton.
Indeed, several writers have argued that Trump is actually catering to white people by pretending to care about minorities — though for my money it looks more like Trump pulling his usual knee-jerk "no, you are!" shtick in response to Clinton calling him a huge racist. In either case, to the extent that he is actually attempting to win over minority populations, he will alienate the white racists who are his hardcore support base. He's hosed either way.
At least he had the courtesy to blur out my face and name in his advertisement. That possibly could have been to avoid people looking up the times I said Trump was a proto-fascist; lamented his "catastrophic ignorance," his "hamfisted incompetence," and his "deranged" foreign policy; and argued that he would be the worst president in American history. More likely, though, the Trump campaign didn't bother to look up any of that stuff.
I can't even honestly claim the dubious honor of being prominent enough that a national campaign deliberately chose me as a credible source. It's pretty obvious how this was constructed: a couple hours pulling clips from TV Eyes, a couple hours googling around to find some convenient headlines, some spooky music from somewhere, and maybe 20 minutes with a handheld camera filming a computer screen. It's sheer coincidence they picked me instead of any of a dozen other journalists and commentators who wrote similar stories.
Still, it is straight bonkers to see Donald Trump posting the title of one of my articles. The minute I look away from the video, my brain starts rejecting the idea, like some donated kidney without the right DNA match. The fact that any presidential campaign can be made aware of something I have written speaks to a political culture whose traditional hierarchies have cracked to bits. Next thing we know, he'll be hiring some tabloid schmuck to be his campaign manager — oh wait.
Ultimately, this is just an unusually personal sideshow in the most bewildering political season in at least a century. In the election cycle where the instincts of practically every political professional betrayed them, where one major party nominee has barely any real campaign to speak of, and the swing states are Georgia, Arizona, and perhaps even South Carolina, being temporarily dragooned aboard the #TrumpTrain is just the new normal.
I just hope I can get off, and soon.