Worse Than Lepers (2017)
iPhone video, 7:01 minutes
Made in collaboration with Kevin Roark
Sixteen years and one day after Al Gore and George W. Bush initiated what would become one of the most confusing, media-centric, and racially-charged elections in American history—one in which the Republican, Bush, lost the popular vote by 500,000 votes but managed to win just enough electoral votes for the presidency—the two major-party candidates for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, engaged in a resonant contest: Clinton, the Democrat, heavily favored to win, won the popular vote (by nearly three million), but Trump, the Republican, took the electoral vote with ease. Although quick recounts proved little in the way of mistake or fraud, the voting process was—and still is, at the time of this writing—held up to intense scrutiny. Both sides believe that votes were tampered with: the Democrats, by Russian hackers; the Republicans (or, if not the party, the president), by illegal immigrants and double-registered voters. Neither party’s suspicions have been confirmed; it’s likely they never will.
The disconnect between the popular and electoral votes in these two elections mirrored the disconnect between the media and the American public. Just as many media voices in 2000 favored Al Gore, many in 2016 favored Hillary Clinton, both of whom represented the Democratic establishment. Allegiance to these candidates blinded them to the strong tides of anti-establishment feelings coursing throughout the country. Before, and even after, the election of Donald Trump, many media outlets attributed those feelings to the white working class—a mass of voters who they believed to be uneducated whites from rural areas participating in the far-right pseudo-populism that Trump had engendered. But the media were in certain respects out to sea: this vision of rural, working-class, Trump-supporting whites missed the fact that the us-versus-them of Trump’s populism wasn’t founded on class or geography (note Trump’s Manhattanite wealth) so much as on misguided nostalgia for a time when America was “great,” which is to say when whiteness and masculinity were rarely, if ever, challenged.
Now that Trump is in office, this nostalgia—and the extreme misogyny, racism, and general xenophobia that drive it—characterizes the “us” to the “them” of the media, Hillary Clinton, and east-coast “elites.” It’s clear that neither the “us” nor the “them” understands the other, not to mention that both groups comprise fluid bases linked less by traditionally-cited demographics like age or hometown and more by qualities like power and fear. Even more than the 2000 election, 2016’s contest revealed a watery cognitive dissonance that engulfs our government as well as our public. Who is who here? Who wants what? Of course, the goals of Trump’s administration are fairly clear, and they represent the greatest threat to the American people in generations. Can we access the populist spirit of the times to make Trump and his team “them” and the voting public “us”? What would that look like? What could it do?
The footage for Popular Mechanics was shot on an iPhone 6 in Queens, New York, and Navarre, Florida; the soundtrack includes two songs by The Shangri-Las, "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" and "He Cried” (both 1965), and ocean sounds sourced from YouTube. The footage for Worse Than Lepers was shot on an iPhone 6 off the coast of Pensacola Beach, Florida; the soundtrack includes the song "On the Beach" (1974) by Neil Young and crowd sounds sourced from YouTube.