I’d wager that everyone reading this knows about Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 film Rashomon. Even if you haven’t seen it, you know the story—or at least you know the story of the story: that the Japanese director told the same tale from several points of view. The story the woodcutter told was not the story the bandit retailed, which was not what the wife said, which was not what the dead samurai, through the courtesy of a medium, propounded.
I said that Rashomon told the same story from different perspectives. That’s how the film’s distinctiveness is usually summarised. In fact, Kurosawa was more radical. He told several different stories on the same set with the same characters so that disparate narratives appear like facets on a unifying jewel whose existence is stipulated but unreal.
Less well known is that Kurosawa, through the same medium that brought us the samurai’s version of events, has weighed in on the upcoming American presidential election. The transmission is garbled in places and the denouement is lacking, but the fragments that exist make for an engaging montage. I am pleased to be able to share a precis of the great director’s hitherto unknown tableaux with you now.
Scenario One: Reverberations in the Echo Chamber. All unfolded as was foretold from the beginning. It was always going to be Hillary Clinton in 2016. The campaign of Bernie Sanders, we now can see, was just a distraction, mildly irritating to team Clinton, but no match for the zeitgeist, which the first female president of the United States has clearly embodied.
On the other side of the aisle, it was Snow Don and the sixteen dwarves, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy, Dopey, and the rest.
The dwarves were euthanised one after the next, much to the surprise of the punditocracy. (Aside from your host: I certainly shared in that surprise.)
This is Kurosawa, not Disney, however, and so the poisoned apple was not proffered by Evil Queen Hillary but was brought along by Donald Trump himself in his lunch pail. He ate it in public, for all to see, and then exploded, in slow motion, as Hillary scooped up an astonishing victory almost as robust as what Ronald Reagan enjoyed in 1984.
There was some drama along the way. There was, for example, the Dukakis Feint. In mid-August, it was pointed out by some observers that, back in 1988, Michael “Tank Commander” Dukakis was seventeen points ahead in the polls against George H.W. Bush. As all the world remembers, Dukakis then went on to trounce Bush in the election, served two terms, and helped prop up the tottering Soviet Union for another twenty years while … Oh, wait: that was from a rejected script.
What actually happened, as all the world really does remember, is that Dukakis (who?) imploded in a surrounding sea of titters after his appearance, avec combat helmet, atop an Abrams M1 tank. He hasn’t been heard from since. Is he still with us? I frankly do not know. I’ll look it up when I finish this column.
I mentioned the Dukakis Feint to a friend. “I know,” he responded, “but this is different. Trump would win easily if he had a campaign; but he doesn’t so he won’t.” While watching the entertainment provided by the Republican Party in Cleveland, Ohio, in July I had occasion to wonder whether candidates actually need traditional campaigns any longer. To be frank, I think the jury is out on that.
But I digress. Here’s what happened in the 2016 election. Trump collared the nomination, partly with the collusion of the media, who loved the new reality television show he was airing, but mostly because of the fermenting anger of those parts of the electorate the media never touches. He had his convention, Hillary had hers, then the media turned with astonishing ferocity on Trump, pummelling him—in those brief moments when he wasn’t pummelling himself—unceasingly until November 8 and the election of America’s first post-menopausal president. Anderson Cooper wept. Chris Wallace had an embarrassing accident on live television and had to step off stage to change his pants. The entire world held hands and applauded this historic victory for, for …
At this point, what difference does it make?
Scenario Two: The Old Crone’s Tale. The zeitgeist wasn’t Hillary’s only advantage. It wasn’t just the current of historical inevitability, the great, irresistible, wave of progressive enlightenment that propelled this female to the top. It was also her hard work, her discipline, and the $1.2 billion (at least) that she spent climbing over the corpses of her opponents.
Everyone could see that trajectory, but in this retelling Kurosawa threw a curve ball. Hillary’s health had long been an issue. Round about August, even Bill’s health snapped into focus, as he was photographed several times looking like a syphilitic sheep pining for a nap. But of course, most of the attention was focused on Hillary. People close to her campaign revealed that she required special hand-rails to be provided wherever she had to walk more than a few steps. Stairs were increasingly a problem. The Drudge Report posted embarrassing pictures of the pantsuited one being steadied by aides as she wobbled up a porch. There were other pictures of her standing popped-eyed at a podium, held up on either side by strong men. Then there were the inventories of her falls and fainting spells. Rumours of a brain aneurysm, of Parkinson’s disease, were rife.
All of these rumours and embarrassing photos were circulated and recirculated when, in October, she finally succumbed, too ill to press on with the campaign. What happened then is one for the history books. Joe Biden manfully stepped in at the last moment. “I’m doing it for Beau,” he said, a reference to his son who tragically succumbed to brain cancer last year and whose dying wish (some say) was that his father should run for President.
Biden chose the Massachusetts squaw, Senator Elizabeth Warren, as his running mate, and they went on to achieve an even larger popular and electoral victory than Hillary did in the first iteration of this tale.
Scenario Three: Law and Order. In this version of the tale, the story begins much as it did in the first version. Hillary rides high. The discipline. The zeitgeist. The cash. It all adds up to an astonishing surge in the polls.
Then this happened. FBI Director James Comey was eaten away by remorse over his subversion of the law when he declined to recommend prosecution for Hillary’s felonious breach of national security in Emailgate. He decided to make amends and take a serious look at the Clinton Foundation and its criminal pay-to-play schemes that traded millions of dollars in speaking fees for Bill and Hillary in exchange for various political favours regarding uranium rights and other desiderata.
The swamp of corruption in which the Clintons have marinated was long ago charted and described, most recently by Steve Bannon and Peter Schweitzer in the documentary Clinton Cash. But it took James Comey’s dogged pursuit of the truth to turn this sub rosa embarrassment into an actual indictment and a scandal from which the public and, reluctantly, even the New York Times recoiled in disgust.
All this came to a head in October, but in this version of the story the stench of corruption overwhelmed the Democratic brand. Joe Biden declined to run. Tim Kaine took the top spot, picked another non-entity as a running mate, and they lost catastrophically to Donald Trump.
Scenario Four: The Interlopers’ Dream. In this version of the story, the shortest by far, Libertarian candidates Gary Johnson and William Weld were born aloft at the last minute by the tsunami of revulsion that had swirled around both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump since the beginning of the campaign. Their campaign started slowly, supported mostly by renegade partisans of Ayn Rand (most of whom rallied round Trump) and advocates for the medicinal, and other, uses of marijuana. But by Labor Day, the two most unpopular presidential candidates in history began to shed supporters. And then, to the surprise of everyone, Bernie Sanders had second thoughts about Hillary and threw his support behind the Johnson–Weld team. No one had the requisite 270 electoral votes, but the Republican-controlled House fielded enough disgruntled congressmen to give the libertarians the nod. It was an historic moment, and one wag noted that Johnson and Weld came to office “trailing clouds of glory”.
Scenario Five: Death by the Polls. What started as a post-convention bounce for Hillary was transformed by the media into a sort of polling snowball. The attacks on Donald Trump were unremitting. His every off-the-cuff remark was scrutinised for misogynistic, xenophobic, violent undercurrents. More and more GOP figureheads defected. His poll numbers plummeted. After Labor Day Hillary was ahead by nearly twenty points. As at Belshazzar’s Feast, the writing was on the wall: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin: “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
Paul Manafort quit as Trump’s campaign manager and went to work for Kim Jong Un. Eric and Ivanka Trump took their father aside and explained that the Trump brand would be unrecoverably damaged if he persisted with the campaign. Trump held a press conference at Trump Tower, announced that the election was “rigged” against him and withdrew from the race. Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels jumped into the race and led the Republicans to victory in November.
Scenario Six: The Silent Majority Speaks. In this final version of the story, Donald Trump continued to trail Hillary Clinton badly. He recovered somewhat before Labor Day, but then made more unpleasant remarks about Muslims and began waving copies of the National Inquirer around on the hustings. His poll numbers looked bad, and beyond that commentators from almost every legitimate source of news and commentary agreed that he could not possibly win. Reince Priebus, like Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, co-consul with Julius Caesar, refused to stir from his house and was not seen in public for weeks on end.
The world was stunned on September 26 when, in the first debate between Trump and Hillary, Trump emerged as the clear popular favourite. The polls began to wobble and then shift decisively in Trump’s favour. November 8 came and he won decisively, narrowly losing New York and even California, and sweeping Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Colorado. Nate Silver, the sage of the poll FiveThirtyEight, announced his retirement and the #NeverTrump hashtag was rewritten to read #IKnewItAllAlong.
That’s all we have from Kurosawa. He says nothing about which, if any, of these scenarios will turn out to describe the facts of the case. I thought it worth bringing them all to the public’s attention because they seem to me to underscore a phenomenon I noted and wrote about in the dim distant past, namely June of this year. “There is no reason,” I wrote in my column at PJ Media, “to believe that the supreme oddity that has characterized this primary season has run its course.”
I didn’t think it had then, and I don’t think it has even now.
There is a powerful tendency [I continued] to believe that, whatever local disruptions we face in the course of life’s vicissitudes, “normality” will soon reassert itself and the status quo ante will reinstall itself in the driver’s seat … Whether you embrace or repudiate Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton doesn’t signify in the context of my contention: the oddity of this campaign season is not over. We are likely to see not just local disturbances like the sudden sacking of campaign managers, but spectacular changes, reversals, upsets, and dei ex machina.
This is the place where I might quote the philosopher Yogi Berra, that master of tautology, and mention that it is not over till it’s over, but then someone would likely remind me about the sonorous lady of adipose aspect, and I have too much regard for your fine feelings to subject you to that.
Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of the New Criterion and Publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St Augustine’s Press).