I don’t like it any more than you do, but in 2014, we have to admit that shooting stuff has become a genre of campaign advertisement. Senator Joe Manchin arguably invented it when he shot a copy of the cap and trade bill in 2010. Last month, Alabama candidate for US House Will Brooke shot and then mulched the affordable care act, in a spot bearing the electorally ominous tagline “let’s do some damage.” The marksman above is Matt Rosendale, Montana senator and Republican candidate for Montana’s lone House seat. He hates the federal government so much he wants to be a part of it, but only so he can get close enough to hogtie it or shoot it with a zip gun or whatever.
In the nuanced semiology of shooting stuff, a drone is a different kind of symbol from a printed law. A copy of the Affordable Care Act is already a cipher before a political advertisement makes it one. It exists only to refer to something else, and because it is the only physical form that Obamacare takes, shooting it becomes almost necessary. Otherwise, opponents of the ACA would have to fire arbitrarily into the air and hope to hit the general malaise of socialism, which would be absurd.
So we can agree that the only sensible way to express your distaste for federal legislation is to print it out and murder it with a gun. Like the Golden Child, it must be incarnated before we can kill it, and its physical manifestation is merely a placeholder, also like the Golden Child. A drone, on the other hand, is a real thing.
Unlike a printed law, a drone is something we (can) encounter in the world, unattached to any symbolic referent. The idea of drones means something important to a lot of us, but a drone itself is not an idea. It’s a flying robot. It’s also an instance of the government’s terrifying desire to build flying robots that watch and/or incinerate people, but by the same process you could call it proof of humans’ ingenuity or a fun glimpse of the future. Where a copy of the Affordable Care Act has only one symbolic referent and no meaning of its own, a drone has its own functional existence plus whatever meaning we assign it.
So what meaning does Rosendale assign to this advertisement drone? “This is how I look from a government drone,” he says, as the shot switches to a bird’s-eye view of him aiming his rifle. “And this is what I think about it.” Then he shoots it.*
As so often happens, the antecedent of “it” is unclear. It could be drones themselves, a class of machines Rosendale hates. It could be the experience of being watched by drones, and shooting means, like, screw that. It could be drones as a symbol of federal overreach, which Rosendale wants to figuratively kill or literally stop with a gun. When you start parsing the semiology of this commercial, potential meanings multiply relentlessly.
But still we are stuck with the literal (in the world of the commercial) act of Rosendale shooting a “government drone.” That act is itself illegal, a violent destruction of federal property. Probably, it qualifies as armed insurrection. Imagine if Rosendale made a commercial in which he said, “this is how I look from a government helicopter” and then shot it down. He would be the craziest candidate in history.
There’s no loss of life involved in shooting a drone, so the analogy is imperfect. The central structure of Rosendale’s commercial remains, though: he identifies a “government drone,” shoots it, and then talks about putting a stop to the “bloated” federal government. There are two ways to read that.
- Rosendale advocates armed resistance to the US government even as he’s running for federal office.
- Rosendale is cynically appealing to hicks.
I believe explanation (2). There’s a long tradition in Montana politics of putting on your barn jacket and shucking it up for the rubes. During election season, everyone becomes a rancher. The last time Rosendale was in the news, it was for his hilarious Maryland accent, which he seems to have tamed for this commercial. But he’s still a Baltimore real estate developer who bought a ranch here in 2002, even if it was to flee the “inherent liberal socialism” of the east coast.
The interesting symbol at work in this ad is not what Rosendale thinks of drones but what he thinks of Montana voters. The best way to win our House seat, he figures, is to stand in front of an ATV and shoot the government. From his brush cut to his belt buckle, he’s given us the Montana rancher he thinks we want to see. It’s not a flattering reflection.