If it seems like right-wing campaign rhetoric is running on autopilot these days, it is. Last week, the Republican National Committee greeted President Joe Biden’s announcement of his reelection bid with a slapdash montage of themes and images generated via artificial intelligence and forecasting the American republic’s descent into dystopian mire in the event of a second Biden term. And this week, Donald Trump released a Facebook campaign ad contending that Biden was already presiding over “an America in decline.” In order to dramatize this baleful condition, the spot highlighted a pair of images dating from Trump’s own term in office.
The specter of morale-draining national declension has been dear to the hearts of GOP political operatives for decades. Barry Goldwater’s landmark 1964 presidential run sternly reminded slackers too besotted with the abundance of the postwar US economy that “the fight for liberty requires eternal vigilance,” a theme reprised in the successful 1980 presidential campaign of Goldwater’s great Hollywood pitchman, Ronald Reagan—the first GOP chief executive elected on a promise to “make America great again.”
The Goldwater and Reagan campaigns were, like all modern right-wing bids for the presidency, steeped in ugly tropes of racist reaction and vigilantism—but their evocations of an atrophied national greatness seem almost quaint compared to the variety now peddled by the Trumpified GOP. In part, of course, that’s due to what pundits have long dubbed the character issue; it’s more palatable to hear lectures about the parlous state of the American social contract from grandfatherly Sunbelt true believers than from an accused rapist, serial sexual assaulter, coup plotter, and document thief. More than that, though, there’s a paint-by-numbers approach in the MAGA-era narrative of American declension, whereby a policy call or legislative initiative has to be leaching away at yon hallowed national character simply because the Democrats summoned it forth. There’s a reason, after all, that AI technology, which doesn’t so much generate thought as aggregate elaborate Markov strings of blather, fits so seamlessly into the templates already developed by Trump’s Republican Party.
And sure enough, the RNC’s AI-produced ad teems with just this sort of half-baked agitprop. It starts by asking, “What if international tensions escalate?” and cuts to footage of an imaginary Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The dire set piece of course blithely overlooks one of the tensest spots of conflict in the actually existing world: Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—a massively destabilizing offensive led by a Trump strongman at the expense of a world leader whom Trump sought to blackmail into mounting an innuendo-offensive against Hunter Biden by withholding preapproved military aid.
OK, so maybe that’s garden-variety hypocrisy from a movement determined to turn that particular political vice up to 11. Consider the same ad’s drive-by treatment of immigration. “What if our border is gone?” the caption asks, as a phony news voiceover announces that “border agents were overrun by a surge of 80,000 illegals yesterday.” Here spiteful hypocrisy just gives way to nonsensical lying: Regrettably, Biden, who’s acutely mindful of how the right weaponizes immigration into a all-purpose alibi for racialized confrontation, is deporting immigrants at a Trumpian clip, and has lately announced initiatives to revive Trump’s own “Remain in Mexico” policy and ban on political asylum. As a strict matter of logic, though, the supposed tide of immigration that has “overrun” the America of the future would have happened under Trump’s watch.
Amazingly, it gets worse. My favorite entry in the second-term Biden dystopia is another bogus news dispatch about how “officials closed the city of San Francisco yesterday, citing the escalating crime and fentanyl crisis.” One has to surmise that AI is still very sketchy on legal jurisdictions and the separation of powers, since the authority to “close” a city doesn’t really exist anywhere in the American system of government. (Moreover, of course, there’s a reason that no polity has resorted to closing a city in response to rampant drug abuse and alleged spikes in dangerous crime—it would greatly worsen the economic foundations of such social ills, as the plotting in the Mad Max and The Purge film franchises makes abundantly plain.)
And I’m again drearily obliged to observe that San Francisco, while besieged with grinding wealth inequality and deficient housing and mental health support, is far less plagued with violent crime than other cities of its size. Indeed, if you’re scouting a locale for a crime-and-drug-ridden dystopia, you’re far better off starting virtually anywhere in Trump country. (This may be why the emerging new GOP consensus on the fentanyl crisis is to bomb Mexico—speaking of escalating international tensions.)
Over on Facebook, meanwhile, the Trump campaign—which is already making extensive social-media buys—also wants to generate the impression that the American republic is slouching toward apocalypse, but instead of employing AI to hit the requisite points of moral panic, it unleashed its creative directors on decidedly cursory image searches. The ad’s most prominent image, just over Biden’s right shoulder, is of a burning police car—but as Forbes contributor Matt Novack notes, it’s a photograph from the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, taken on May 30, 2020, in Chicago. Over Biden’s other shoulder is a shot of immigrants crossing a body of water—again to incoherently suggest that Biden is presiding over a no-borders America. But this image also dates from 2020, when Trump was still in office—and more absurdly still, it depicts immigrants from Mexico going south to Guatemala, not north to America. Today’s GOP not only desperately needs a moral compass; it also lacks a real one.
As an account of a nation reduced to a shadow of its former glory, this is a far cry from Reagan’s (deeply misguided) “city on a hill” orations. Still, there’s one brief moment of clarity in all this digital-age sound and fury: At the end of the RNC’s AI spot, the narrator laments, “Who’s in charge here?” and, hurriedly speaking over themselves, closes with “it feels like the train is running off the tracks.” Well put, randomized algorithm!