The Crisis of Cringe: How to Win at A Game We Don’t Want to Play
Unpacking the Ziwe - Santos interview and its lessons for the left’s response to the rise of the reality-show politician
Contributors: Kendall Bendheim & Ned Howey
There’s a lot of ideas floating around at the moment as to why the left can’t seem to properly land any meaningful commentary about our opponents. The right, especially the far-right, has taken up a powerful weapon characterized by a shrewd, faux-charismatic sort of apathy and a stature of “anti-establishment” antagonism that is hard to reckon with. How do you argue with, or draw attention to, the faults of someone who simply screams “I don’t care, it’s all fake” in your face with every breath? The left has a serious issue in the way we engage with these people - and often it only fuels the fire. We find a bright spot though, something that could help us parse the noise and understand this issue better with some clues for the way forward - in this very comedic, sometimes uncomfortable, and pretty trenchant Youtube video.
Depending on which pool of the internet you swim in, you may have already seen, in its entirety or in clips, Ziwe’s interview with disgraced former Republican congressman George Santos.
Santos rose in media popularity with each allegation made, lie exposed, scandal published, or fraud uncovered over the past 2 years, and captured the internet’s imagination as an openly gay politician with a tendency to flout tradition and make, um…unorthodox PR and life choices. He was expelled from the US House of Representatives following federal indictment on multiple counts of criminal charges having to do with his use of campaign funds this past October, and since then has been insisting upon remaining in the spotlight, knowing full well the hold he has on the American content matrix. He’s low hanging fruit for comics and writers (guilty), segments on late night shows have been dedicated to his antics, and there’s even a movie about his life and lies in the works. With all this song and dance in popular culture - it’s easy to forget this man held public office, where he supported Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign, advocated for legislation that endangered trans youth, and defrauded thousands of campaign donors.
(To be honest - the full, stranger-than-fiction absurdity of Santos’ life story and tenure in Congress is too much to convey in this blog post - so may I suggest you simply visit his “Investigations and Legal Issues” and “False biographical statements” sections on his Wikipedia for a taste of the degree of untruth this man embodies?)
We find quite a few lessons, contradictions, and prescience in this interview. We’re not here to answer all the questions - is it good or bad? Humorous or dangerous? Rather - we want to draw attention to the elements of our political landscape it brings into focus, and maybe with this view in focus, we can provide some insight as to how the left speaks to and about the right.
In parallel with the interview itself, a meta-dialogue of sorts persists in the dialogue, one that is conscious of the attention economy and openly mocks the state of political culture. Can we revel in, effectively lampoon, or actually learn from the level of “cringe” we find in this interview? Or does it simply drag us further down the deep, dark abyss of bad, inactive, disengaged politics? Why are we even taking the time to write this? Whether you like it or hate it, take offense or laugh it off - we need to acknowledge that things aren’t working on the left for the US, and we should be banging on every door, and interrogating every suspicion, in an attempt to analyze and correct this.
Fraud in the “Swamp”
Santos, like most politicians these days on the American right, are always eager to talk about “draining the swamp” - the term famously coined by Donald Trump as a metaphor for his main campaign platform. It refers to the idea that a regular, average Joe (like…Donald Trump) will become elected, come to Washington, and expose the crafty, corrupt state of the place and then take action to dismiss the evil-doers and instill righteousness in their place. What’s so funny about this phrase and the whole business of the swamp is that often the people talking about it so heavily are those most guilty of crooked behavior in the first place. In this very interview, Santos talks, while having been indicted on multiple criminal charges having to do with fraudulent misuse of campaign funds, about his work “draining the swamp”, and his desire to continue to do so. Ziwe is clever enough to engage on the topic, all while having planted a purse full of overflowing dollars right behind Santos.
Santos has a long, well-documented history of trickery and fraud that many would call simply “playing the game”. He’s publicly stated that he is Jewish (he is not), that his mother was in the World Trade Center on 9/11 (she was not), and that he lost four employees of his former company in the Pulse nightclub shooting (there was no connection found between any of the victims and any company Santos worked for). Like I said - there are many more of these instances, and maybe even more allegations of misconduct, criminal activity, and just all-around not-ok behavior. I doubt anyone would argue his status as a prolific and pro-level liar.
Implicit in Santos’ lies is his “gameplay”. He flip flops and fabricates, depending on who he’s speaking to. He politicizes with spin, tall-tales, and a unique brand of charisma. Does this sound familiar? Is it starting to seem like we live in a time where we allow for, maybe even incentivize, this sort of “con man” politician?
The con goes far beyond his lies, to fundraisers and campaign claims, to policy itself. Besides a litany of now exposed lies, Santos is also a case definition of hypocrisy: a Latino gay man with a proclivity for racism, transphobia, and cruel indifference belying a lack of compassion (in the interview he is unable to define “empathy”). His policy support tracks - including open support of Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill, his sponsorship of the “Reject Latinx Act, and sign-on to harmful anti-immigration bills like this one proposed by far-right Congressman Matt Gaetz.
This contradiction is readily on show in the interview as Santos, who, revealed to have a history with drag performance, responded to the question if he supports pronouns, with an effeminate high pitch cackle while screeching a mocking answer in the negative.” The derision, hypocrisy, and contradiction is a feature of Santos’ supporter base, and it unfortunately proves true the notion that a crowd may feel more emboldened in their own support of such hateful and discriminatory policies, if someone with such an identity themselves, dismisses the call for kindness and fairness.
Indeed, in the interview Santos clearly demonstrates he has no idea who Marsha P Johnson (the first person who took action in Stonewall), James Baldwin, (“Huh… who the hell is James Baldwin?”), or Harvey Milk is (“I have no clue who the hell that is”). Immediately following the line of questioning on historical civil rights figures, Santos lights up when prompted to finish lyrics from a Nicki Minaj song. It's hard to accept that Santos, one of a handful of openly gay politicians, wouldn’t know who Harvey Milk (the first openly gay elected politician) was. Rather, often it seems that Santos imagines he is actually playing a character of a person who wouldn’t know this. The underlying message in this act - if that is what is occurring - is, “this isn’t important to me, so it should be to you either” - which seems to be an idea that generally forms the basis of the rights’ reluctance to accept the importance of identity.
Persona Politics and Collective Disenchantment
In the old ways of politics, Santos might seem an anomaly, but as a representation of our current decline in civics and the reality of the democratic landscape today - he is in some ways a perfect representation of the worst of our political present. Prior to 2016 few, if any, really foresaw the possibility of a reality show host taking the helm of the presidency. Yet, that is exactly what Trump did. And much of his support, beyond policy, is linked to this entertainment-focused reaction to the system at large. One only needs to read the comments section of social media to observe how strongly many see Trump’s “clowning” of politics as appealing to a large swath of the American electorate. The interplay of pop culture and populist politics of the right seem squarely intertwined whether we want to face that reality or not.
Ziwe does not miss a beat on bringing this aspect into the interview, asking within the first few minutes, “You’ve been accused of lying to the American people. How long do you think it will be before you get called to be on Dancing with the Stars.” Her direct reference is to Sean Spicer, who following his resignation as fake news Trump propagandist White House Press Secretary under Trump, was one of many “celebrities” featured on the hit American reality-competition show, pairing prominent US pop culture figures with professional dancers. The question, and Spicer’s media arc, highlights the interplay of populist politicians featuring in mainstream entertainment - a sphere of attention for attention’s sake - and the importance placed on “personalities” as a conduit for politics, rather than people.
Trump did not leave behind his popular Apprentice (i.e - “You’re fired”) persona when he began his campaign run. Rather he embraced and propelled himself to the presidency with it. In the contemporary political setting, not only is all press good press, but that which is traditionally considered potentially damaging becomes an asset. Cringe keeps eyeballs on elements that are otherwise seemingly inaccessible, or what could be considered profoundly boring political news.
Saying horrific things is now synonymous with a character of bold authenticity. Going public with that which was once considered too shameful for sharing suddenly makes politicians seem ‘relatable’ in a world where social media puts the mundane and unpolished aspects of our lives into the public sphere. Just as TV entertainment moved from the polished performances of highly produced shows, to the ‘real life’ fist-fight drama of the supposedly ‘real’ in reality shows like Big Brother, politicians now seem to get boosts for airing their brash dirty laundry of imperfection.
We wish we could say the phenomenon is an aberration contained to American political culture, but the bright, neon signs in politics worldwide show it's not the case. Our Brazilian friends recall when Bolsonaro, who won the presidency of the world’s sixth most populous country in 2018, in years prior was relegated to a fairly irrelevant position in their congress. Before taking the office of president, Bolsonaro was only occasionally trotted out to be interviewed by comedians because his statements were so outrageous it seemed no one with a rational mind could take him seriously. Again, entertainment reigns. One need only look at similar patterns in the style and approach of Boris Johnson and Javier Milie of Argentina to see this is a global effect.
The source of this cultural shift is deeply rooted in an entryway - and in some senses take-over - of today’s commercial market trends into civics itself. The attention-above-all-else zeitgeist is not unrelated to the presence of expectation shifts rooted in social media - where small shock value for “realness” drives an economy of stimulation, ultimately with the objective of keeping eyeballs on ads. In our social media society, the behavior of most of the population has been optimized by algorithms that systemically prioritize keeping our attention - and leveraging our evolutionary brain chemistry towards its innate reactiveness, built to keep us attentive to the most shocking and sensational stimuli. The toxic behavioral manipulation of Big Tech has taken on a new role in its translation to politics: instead of anything for attention for advertising, we live in a world where the operational logic at play is anything for attention for votes. The intricacies of foreign policy, or the value of civil rights figures, don’t stand a chance at grabbing attention compared to playing a clown for political gain.
The “truthiness” of the “persona-based politician”, is also justified by Santos in the interview, and by the Trump-style politicians more broadly (re: Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene), with the excuse that actual truth isn’t that valuable in politics, since - as they claim - all politicians are, in fact, frauds, fake, and corrupt. To their supporters - the value exists, not in the honesty of the claims, but rather that they are in their nature anti-establishment, and speak to their suspicion that all politics happen in a corrupt and staged, ivory tower theater.
It is the same drivers that inspire the massive reach of fake news. Claims that are so outrageous, so surely beyond belief (such as Pizzagate, which claimed Hillary Clinton was running a child prostitution ring from a pizza parlor), have high organic reach exactly because it triggers among those already disillusioned with public officials and their efficacy a sense, a suspicion, that the establishment is lying to us all along. The cause here is the gap in trust that exists between civic operators (like those in national government roles) and the general population, in conjunction with the way people experience decaying civics in their everyday lives and communities. The immediacy of impact from political processes seems strikingly distant compared to the market optimization of commercial transactions available to us in a world where nice new shoes can appear at your door in a couple of hours.
Scandalous statements, poorly written tweets, and off-the-cuff speeches filled with buffoonery are not felt by supporters of these political approaches as faults, but rather as part of the appeal. Every step out of line with expectation on political professionalism is seen as a statement against an elite and untouchable system that constituents are subject to, rather than part of. The rise of the Trump class, to which Santos firmly belongs, speaks to a real frustration of voters with a static or decreasing quality of life and little agency, and the ubiquity of these political types in all levels of government demonstrates a desire for and the appeal of an uprising against a professional class issuing orders of how they must be, for many people living with poor socioeconomic circumstances worldwide.
Taking the Bait aka Owning the Libs
These new rules of politics played by the populists draw a good deal of their power from the fact that we, the self-proclaimed ‘sensible people on the left’, have no idea how to respond. In fact, our responses of condemnation, ridicule, and “call outs” have done more to alienate us and paint us as the out-of-touch elite they claim we are. Our critical response - overly serious - is closing the trap on our own heads as we paint ourselves as dishonest in our claims of perfection, elite in our coldness, unfun and unworthy of praise overall.
We saw in the Trump era a large amount of “pearl clutching” from the American left, that unfortunately continues, albeit in lesser numbers, to this day. There were liberal spit-takes left and right over his antics - and these responses did nothing but fuel the right’s belief that their antagonism was just, and Trump was doing exactly what he said he would do to shake things up in DC.
In each overly-earnest response of condemnation, we show how little we are aware of how to play in this arena with new rules. Whether we choose to fight what politics has become in this space or not, our failure to begin recognizing the efficacy of this new political frame has positioned us continually on the losing end each election day. Simply playing by the old rules, while wishing away the reality show spectacle has done nothing but help us lose power. Like it or not, this is the new reality. And we, “the libs”, are truly “getting owned”.
We simply cannot use our old messaging weapons to disarm the power of this circus show that has taken hold of our political sphere. We need a new way. And we wonder if Ziwe herself has shown us some keys in this interview, which perhaps for the best, perhaps for the worst - further platforms one of the objectively most heinous political figures in recent times.
The Complex Play of Ziwe
In 2017 - Ziwe founded a relatively popular Youtube show called “Baited” - where she invited guests on a talk-show style satire program to comically quiz them on matters of race. As Doreen St. Felix of the New Yorker writes:
“I cannot say that “Baited with Ziwe,” [...] is enjoyable to watch, and that’s the point. On “Baited,” Ziwe subjects non-Black people to interviews about race that quickly become inquisitions. It is a fantasy comedy of entrapment in which the Black woman tosses white naïveté down the hatch while playfully hoarding the lock and key. There is no right answer, say, to Ziwe’s demand of a white woman guest, a famous cook, to “name five Black people off the top of your head,” because Ziwe is not asking a question. And yet the guest works hard to answer in good faith, to look racially hip in the face of the ludicrous, because she believes, whether she will admit it or not, that her reputation is hinged on a kind of obeisance.”
Ziwe’s unique brand of interview later entered the somewhat-mainstream American internet sphere during the pandemic when she moved the show to Instagram live. Among the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020, she found no shortage of celebrities eager to prove how not-racist they are in a one-on-one online gladiator arena with a wickedly clever Nigerian-American lady comic. Every episode you find yourself asking “Why are they doing this?”, “Did they know what they were doing coming on?”, and “Did they really just say that?!”. Examining Ziwe as a relic of our time could take weeks - many people have asked if it’s satire with teeth, if it has a purpose, or is purely entertainment with some political trappings made for an age of virtue-signaling. What the show is trying to say, if anything - is something well beyond this blog post’s pay grade - but what we think is important to note - is the level at which Ziwe approaches her subjects. Interviews are a funny medium to begin with - each party is vying for attention, attempting to say what they want heard. Ziwe however submits to the game while laying the playing field exactly as she wants.
While we wonder whether the Ziwe - Santos interview, with over 1.8 million views on YouTube is overall good or bad, what is undeniable is that she has successfully entered the arena of this content-game, and criticized it from within. She works to entrap Santos in his own play of faux charisma, works to draw attention to the contradictions of his public persona, and continues to harken back to the main issue at play here - his unethical deception of donors and voters to his campaign.
Throughout she addresses what she knows to be the main crux of the interview - should she be doing this at all? Should she be platforming this man, giving him exactly what she wants? The video starts with a disclaimer “No Congressmen were paid in the making of this interview.. Even though George Santos asked… three times” - and the beginning features a candid camera conversation between Santos and Ziwe where he asks if they can “be mindful with the DOJ stuff” - i.e. asking Ziwe not to ask questions about the most important topic surrounding Santos - his pending criminal charges.
Ziwe above all has a unique ability to make her guests, such as Santos, feel they are in a casual enough atmosphere, something akin to “Oprah” or “Ellen”, that they unwittingly tell on themselves. She ensnares them gracefully, and as all great critics and artists do - she shows and doesn’t tell. She meets them where they are with an agenda they can not possibly predict, and thus she interviews Santos in a way that allows for explication beyond the basic back and forth of the interview.
Hate the Game and the Player
Finally we struggle to decide - what should we take away from this? Is this interview good or bad, and if so, how? Does it help our mission, or is it unethical in a sense that we’ve spent so much time pouring over this video and writing this article? We have to understand that as we enter into the game of right-wing snake oil salesmen, we have to question what we sacrifice. By giving a platform to such players, even when mocking them - we may in fact be elevating them - and when we do this, who truly wins? Does the laughter of the left, while watching Sean Spicer glide across a televised ballroom floor outweigh the further attention paid to him? Is the spectacle worth the screen time, and actual money, paid to these faces of the MAGA movement? While we cannot play by the old rules of attack in this new political game, without losing precious ground and image, we also must question - are we surrendering our greater values if we enter into the arena of reality-show political culture, as Ziwe successfully did?
Perhaps the most important moment of the interview comes when Ziwe asks Santos “What could we do to get you to go away?” Santos responds snidely, “Stop inviting me to your gigs”, to which Ziwe suggests “So the lesson is to stop inviting you places”. Santos smirks and says, “But you can’t. Because people want the content”. With this comment - Santos names the core issue here, one from which he profits the most, and one that crucifies traditional messaging tactics. Maybe we need this medium, Ziwe-esque satire - in order to reach members of the electorate who otherwise won’t engage with issues of civics - but maybe also we’re stuck in a monster of a content-machine, and this sort of video does nothing but feed it, all the while giving people like Santos a louder voice. We’re too desperate for the entertainment, but what is its effect on us besides disillusionment, disgust, and detachment?
The left seems to be trapped in a bit of a dance with these figures. We need to understand while we think we have the upper hand on the content matrix by drawing attention to the clownishness of these people, the right has also successfully co-opted it in a way that uniquely benefits them. For us, in this game - it seems to be more of a maze, and there almost appears to be no way out. The fact of the matter is - interviews like this probably do not change anyone’s mind. They most likely do not reach anyone who is on the fence about the political efficacy of Republicans like Santos, and if they do, the satire probably does not land the way it should. However - the value of this interview comes from the illumination provided by Ziwe on our relationship to people like this, and invites us to interrogate our involvement with them, even as objects of derision.
Plotting a Correction Course in a Cringe Culture
This is not a simple, cut-and-dry political messaging challenge. It's a new political culture - and one in which all of our political activities are determined. Just arming ourselves with better campaign tactics or a better messaging strategy won’t solve it. In fact, it's not clever campaigns or groundbreaking political maneuvers we are losing to. Few would acknowledge the hot mess of a campaign team that propelled Trump to the White House. It’s the tapping into this ethos - the shifting political terrain - that has them winning. The left needs to avoid over-sensationalizing and temper their responses to triviality from the right - and acknowledge that the sensational nature of it is exactly why the right is doing what it’s doing - they’re doing it for the content.
Until we find a way to disarm this - either by entering into the game to upend it, or by changing the game entirely, it will determine whether elections and progressive efforts will continue on this route of struggling to gain power, or change course entirely.
The left must acknowledge this horrific political context and stop ignoring its power. How do we enter into this arena, and nullify their tactics effectively - and if we do so, does this make concessions to the larger, more vile beast that politics has become? Then, are we validating a political context where we never truly win as our values have been fully diminished? Are we really winning if we too run cringy pop personalities? +
Victories for the likes of Santos and Trump speak to the electorate’s desire for relatability, closeness of personality, and authenticity that comes with these self-described “messy b*tch” personas. Beyond the obvious of avoiding entrapment in our messaging strategy, we also need to look at the ground political context. If we don’t want to enter into their terrain in an attempt to disarm it (as Ziwe did, but with questionable impact), then we need to work to intentionally move the culture of politics itself to a different place. How in the name of the good lord do we do that?
We don’t have all the answers. But we know a lot of the elements we need to take on if we want to make this shift - and it's right at the core of the seismic shift which Tectonica is attempting to make in its mission. Beyond the simplicity of authentic messaging, we need to find ways to more deeply involve people as participants in our political work - not as merely subjects to it. People who can see themselves in our movements will not be craving an uprising against a political class they see as cold and distant. But to build that trust they must be part of our work, with voice, participation and a meaningful role.
We need to make politics more overtly valuable to constituents, rather than just another entertaining reality show, if we want people to take it seriously. Just shouting “take it seriously” when they see no part of themselves in it cannot work. In essence when we are truly accountable to voters, not as a messaging strategy exercise, but because we have invited them to the table, and we see ourselves as them, they won’t be reaching out to clowns to unveil the circus show they think of as our civics.
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