On September 26th, 1960, the first televised presidential debate in the history of the United States was held. It was between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. For the first time in history, the candidates of the world’s leading power adapted their language to the codes of television in front of 70 million viewers.
The advantage was widely obtained by a 43-year-old young man, who had rehearsed for days with consultants specializing in television image, had sunbathed in the morning and slept an hour before going to the TV studio, styled in a suit chosen to stand out from the scenography of the set and makeup that highlighted his movie actor face.
After losing the election, Nixon declared: “My advice to the candidate to come is: trust the television producers, let them do their makeup even if you hate it, that they tell you how to sit, how to brush your hair…”
The structure of that public contest lasted one hour, including questions from a panel of journalists and closing statements. In this way, the era of political marketing aimed at mass media was inaugurated. And what was not discussed was that the behavior of both candidates had been exemplary, both had respected the agreed rules as a method of debate.
Now, there has been a lot of talk about the latest US presidential debate between candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Trump and Biden hurled various grievances such as “clown,” “racist,” “useless,” a rhetoric built by the opposition of antagonists: “us vs. them,” cross-accusations of radicalism that only exacerbate the extremist perspectives developed by the algorithms of social networks, etc. What both sides agree upon is that the debate did not respect rules and methods. That is why the internet was full of articles that recalled the example of the historical debate of 1960.
It is interesting to remember that while the debate between Kennedy and Nixon took place, napalm set fire to the jungle on the other side of the world where the Vietnam War raged, one of the darkest chapters in American history that is still present in its cultural products.
Francis Ford Coppola filmed Apocalypse Now based on the novel The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The story tells of Captain Willard’s mission to Vietnam. He was tasked with locating and assassinating Colonel Kurtz.
Kurtz, who had been an outstanding example of the US Army, had settled in the depths of the Cambodian jungle and had created a system of savagery and terror with no other mission than to satisfy his push to jouir.
The film reaches its conceptual apex when Willard finally meets Colonel Kurtz, played by the inimitable Marlon Brandro. Kurtz asks Willard a fundamental question: “What do you think of my methods?” Willard responds: “I see no methods,” then Kurtz smiles, unveiling Coppola’s thesis: Vietnam was the tomb of Western rationality.
The 2020 United States presidential race sometimes suggests that Colonel Kurtz finally won the cultural battle, and he smiles, mocking the Republican campaign slogan, “Make America great again.”
Clearly, the Other is in freefall, there are no longer rules since no one takes the place of the exception that could function as guarantor of the method guided by the Cartesian principle, cradle of reason and science, hope for the future.
On the contrary, in the wake of the decline of leaders, all that remains is political marketing devoid of content, the trolls of social networks, the decline of modesty, and a push to jouir that promotes populism of the left and right, radicalizing politics, drowning it in fanaticism.
Once again, as J.-A. Miller says in his seminar, The Other That Doesn’t Exist and Its Ethical Committees, the United States is the place where the symptoms of the 21st century can be deciphered.
We cannot fail to mention that all of this happens in the middle of a global dystopian scene, the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus the contingencies and consequences of this year 2020 strike the places from where a power that commands discourse could be exercised, evidencing what Lacan said in 1969: … this power is now so confused that it does not lead foot to ball, because despite everything, on the side, something happens to science that exceeds its capacity of mastery.(1)
(1) Lacan, J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 16, "From an Other to the other", unpublished.