There is a term that charlatans frequently use when making political analysis: “optics.” Typically, you’ll hear this word deployed whenever a political figure’s actions demand that some pundit answer a variation on the old hoary question, “But how did it play in Peoria?” Of course, most of the people who rise to answer this inquiry couldn’t possibly know, so they string together a set of facile assumptions and guess-timations and pawn it off as the truth.
This is “optics” ― the world as viewed through ersatz eyeballs. Whenever you hear the word on cable news, change the channel, lest you grind your teeth to powder.
The media often wrestles with notions of authenticity, badly. I surely won’t be the first to note that most of the time, what the political press perceives as authentic in a politician is merely well-crafted artifice. A convincing enough simulacrum of authenticity often wins the day. In fact, the media fairly often recoils at the sight of real authenticity, whenever it reveals itself. And so, more often than not, your political analysis is simply drawn from the lights reflected on the walls of Plato’s cave.
This is how it comes to pass that a massive financial crisis is seen on your Sunday morning political shows as a problem exclusively faced by affluent politicians ― will they surmount this challenge and retain their seats, or will they lose and be forced to take high-paying K Street-slash-Wall Street jobs? ― instead of something that actually affects normal human Americans. But that’s not the only place you’ll witness the Beltway-vs.-reality divide. Case in point:
I’ll confess that when this moment occurred during Tuesday night’s joint address, I thought about whether previous presidents would have been able to get away with this stunt. Obviously, I’ve learned that they would have done so very easily!
It would be a mistake to assume that Twitter reveals monoliths among the general public. Not everyone thinks the same way. But the tweet referenced above nevertheless exposes that there were conscientious dissenters from Washington’s morning-after groupthink. One of them, Foreign Policy’s Micah Zenko, drills down on this further, noting that this moment during President Donald Trump’s joint address to Congress “revealed a great deal not just about what sort of leader the president is but how disengaged America’s political class has always been with the country’s more than 15-year war on terrorism.”
Turns out, there is something more to chew on, besides the laudable act of giving some attention, and support, to a war widow. “What was especially fascinating about this,” Zenko notes, “is that Trump never mentions Yemen, the war-torn country where the operation occurred.” Yemen, of course, has long been the war that official Washington talks about in hushed whispers, seeing as our intervention in that nation has been specious on our best days. On our worst days ... well, as Daniel Larison observes, we are arguably the “camera-ready villains” in this conflict. (Trump has predictably made a bad thing worse, but it shouldn’t be forgotten what a wretched thing the war in Yemen was to begin with.)
So a soldier is dead. We know his name, and we know the mission he was undertaking. But there’s more to the story. And, as Zenko notes, the opportunity to ask a multitude of questions about how Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens came to find himself facing the last moments of his life in Yemen was drowned out by the applause of the men and women of the Beltway Bubble, all of whom were doing nothing more in that moment than desperately trying to out-patriot one another for the television cameras:
A more fitting tribute to a member of special operations like Owens would be to question the wisdom of the raid and to learn from any mistakes that were made to mitigate them being repeated in the future. A broader question would be to ask why military force should be used at all in Yemen, much less for 15 consecutive years. Or, relatedly, why does America’s targeted adversary there keep growing and growing? The State Department’s 2010 terrorism report claimed: “[Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] is estimated to have several hundred members.” The 2013 report stated: “AQAP is estimated to have approximately one thousand members.” In the 2015 report, the estimate was up to “four thousand members.” Are U.S. counterterrorism policies, or support for other nations’ policies in Yemen, growing terrorists there? If so, why continue to pursue them?
But there’s no time to ask these questions! We have a presidential “pivot” to etch into eternity! (A “pivot” that was bookended by two acts of buck-passing, let us note for the sake of history.) And that is how your “optics” get made.
How dire could the consequences be in a world where the media’s perspective diverges so fully from reality? How about this dire?
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.