It’s 3 AM and our country’s in trouble. Would this guy stop tweeting to answer the call? pic.twitter.com/EsnPH6Fg89
— Priorities USA (@prioritiesUSA) September 30, 2016
Click on the video above. It’s about a minute long. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, did you “get” the joke? If you did, you just took an interesting 60-second tour through half a century of American political campaigns–kind of an interesting accomplishment for a simple political web video posted on Twitter. And it involves a subject I’ve covered before on this blog: the infamous “Red Telephone.”
Two days ago, the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States was evidently awake at 3:00 AM. As much of the world now knows, at that hour he was on Twitter posting tweets insulting and abusing a woman named Alicia Machado, former Miss Universe. Yesterday (September 30, 2016), a PAC called Priorities USA created the above video lampooning the situation. This ad wasn’t created by Hillary Clinton or her campaign, but it’s obviously in support of her candidacy, the message being: do you want a guy who does this kind of thing as leader of the free world? This isn’t an unusual type of message for a political ad, but note that it only works if you know what the Red Telephone is and why it rings. To understand that, you need to know a little Cold War history.
But before we get there, watch this ad, which was run in 2008 during the Democratic party primary by the Hillary Clinton campaign. It is easily the most famous political commercial to emerge from that campaign season. Note that you don’t even see the telephone that’s ringing. We all just assume it’s the Red Telephone.
Historically, the Red Telephone is shorthand for a secure line of communication established between the top-level officials of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1963, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, designed specifically to put U.S. and Russian leaders in direct touch with each other in the event of a nuclear emergency. In point of fact the “hotline” is not, and never was, an actual telephone, whether red or any other color. In the 1960s it was a secure Telex machine, which in the 2000s became a secure email channel. The U.S. and Soviet negotiators specifically avoided a means of voice communication in the fear that one leader might misread something in the other’s voice. But that hardly matters. In popular culture and political shorthand, we all know what the Red Telephone is: it never rings unless there’s a severe crisis occurring, most likely involving the specter of nuclear destruction and the most ominous decisions any world leader might ever be called upon to make.
This is exactly the point of Hillary’s 2008 ad. When the red phone rings, who do you trust to answer it? A candidate (or a PAC) generating doubt about the fitness, judgment or readiness of their opponent to tackle potentially world-shaking decisions is a familiar campaign theme. Hillary Clinton was, in 2008, raising questions about whether her primary opponent, Barack Obama, had the experience and skill to handle the job. Ultimately that argument was not successful, as Obama convinced the Democratic Party and eventually the nation that he could handle the job, but note that the argument also works in reverse. The specter of the Red Telephone ringing has been used, directly or indirectly, by some campaigns to suggest that a candidate is too eager to initiate world destruction.
Now watch this ad from 1964, paid for by the Lyndon Johnson campaign against Barry Goldwater. It’s the most famous political commercial of all time.
Judged so inflammatory that the commercial was run only once, the “Daisy Ad” nevertheless entered the public consciousness instantly and has stayed there for 52 years. It’s the foundation upon which the “Trump 3AM Twitter” ad is built. I hope you note the conceptual progression, from 1964 Daisy to 2008 “Midnight Phone Call” to 2016 “Trump 3AM Twitter.” We live in a new era of technology and social media, but many core things about our politics remain remarkably consistent–as well as what scares us. The “Trump 3AM Twitter” ad is meant to be humorous, but also frightening. I’m fascinated that it works on so many historical levels.
There’s something ominous about this election, which is quite possibly the most important one in recent history, and which will determine the future of the United States and indeed the world, involving so little discussion of the real issues at stake. We’re going to be a long time unraveling the history of 2016, and it’s going to be a very strange chapter in future history books. To be honest I kind of wish it was over.