Wednesday, July 22, 2015

4 Points on the Meaning of the Donald Trump Candidacy

So much attention on the part of the news media is being devoted to Donald Trump running for president that I can't resist adding some comments on the meaning of Trump's candidacy, on Trump as a pseudo-candidate, on Trump as a celebrity candidate, on Trump representing the business sector, and on Trump as a leader.

1. Trump is a pseudo-candidate. Much of the coverage about his candidacy amounts to discussion about whether he should be taken seriously or not. The opinion polls showing him leading the pack of contenders for the Republican nomination are evidence that he is a legitimate contender. But his behavior falls outside of the norm of political rhetoric, adding to the fact that his past experience does not fit the profile of most major party candidates.

While news media are covering Trump as a controversial candidate, and how some are arguing that he is not fit to be president, most are not taking the opportunity to raise the more interesting question of what are the requirements to becoming president? Part of the problem is that we have the American cultural myth that there are no requirements, that anyone can grow up to be president, so it goes against that deeply held and cherished belief to suggest that someone who is born a citizen and is not a convicted felon cannot be president. No one wants to say that American presidents tend to come from a relatively small segment of the population, to have a relatively narrow set of qualifications based on education (Ivy League for the most part in recent decades), socioeconomic background (often affluent, at least professionals occupying the upper middle class). and experience (significant records of government service).

And when it comes to the coverage, while there is acknowledgement that Trump's candidacy is fueled by his personal fortune, implying that anyone with the means can effectively "buy" his way into the race, this tends to obscure the fact that much of the task of running for president is about fundraising, that all of the candidates have to be or quickly become resource rich in order to mount an effective campaign. Which leads to the inverse conclusion, that people without the means or connections, poor people, working class people, even most middle class people, can never become president. Of course, everyone knows this, but it is never actually stated in an overt manner, because that would pop the bubble, ruin the illusion.

But even here, there is the sense that Trump's use of personal wealth to fund his campaign places him outside of the political norm. It's not unheard of, but it is another way in which he is non-traditional candidate.

Of course, the main thing is that he speaks off the cuff, and that his comments, about immigration, Mexico, John McCain, Obama's birth status, etc., are not politic. And there is an obvious popular appeal to this, in contrast to most candidates being increasingly more unwilling to take a stand on anything because it will be shared throughout our vast electronic media environment, to all of the conflicting constituencies that the candidates are vying for support from. In the face of the bland way of talking that results from all this, an uncandidate who speaks his mind and is not afraid of offending others comes across as authentic where all the others seem phoney. That this contributes to Trump's appeal is clear enough, but again what often goes unsaid is that this also implies is that if you are authentic, you can never be president. That is perhaps the greatest threat posed by Trump's candidacy to traditional politicians.

The solution, of course, is a theatrical one. Following Erving Goffman, we can understand that authenticity is a performance, a way of playing a role, and candidates need to play the part of being authentic while not actually being authentic, just as actors need to convince you that they are the character they're portraying, not an actor playing a part. The performance needs to be transparent, so the audience forgets that it is a performance. And let's be clear, sometimes the performance of authenticity may not be a lie; in fact, it works best if most of the time the performance is felt to be real and true by the actor. Most politicians, not having experience on the stage or screen, have some trouble with their projection of a sense of authenticity when performing their roles. Of course, Ronald Reagan, who was an actor before he became a politician was the master at creating an image of authenticity, and thereby establishing credibility, and likeability, with his audience.

Despite the threat that Trump's image of authenticity poses, ultimately he will be seen as a pseudo-candidate. The message that he is not to be taken seriously, or that he is not fit to be president, is being broadcast fairly consistently by the news media, comedians and talk show hosts, and by many of his Republican rivals. And while this is not the intent of the journalists and media professionals at least, dismissing Trump serves to reinforce the legitimacy of all of the other candidates.

I want to emphasize this point: By presenting Trump as a pseudo-candidate, news media outlets are telling us that all of the other candidates are not pseudo-candidates. They are telling us that they are, in fact, real candidates. That they are, in fact, authentic.

This serves to disguise what media ecology scholar Jacques Ellul referred to as the political illusion, the illusion that politics in a technological society is not reduced to decisions largely made by technical experts on the basis of efficiency, rather than any other human value.


Postmodernist Jean Baudrillard, a media ecologist in his own right, once argued that the function of Disneyland, an an obvious simulation of reality, was to give us the impression that everything else is real, is not a simulation as well. That is, it gives us the impression that our malls, highways, cities, buildings, homes, as well as our parks and farms, are not the product of human technological intervention, that we have not radically reshaped the environment that we live in. That it is not, in that sense, an artificially manufactured, pseudo-environment.

By the same token, Trump as a pseudo-candidate reinforces the view that the other candidates, who all behave in the narrow way that a candidate is supposed to behave, and who all represent a narrow segment of the population, all are real, actual, authentic, legitimate candidates that ought to be taken seriously. Trump is the obvious simulation of the political process that hides the fact that it is all a simulation of a true democracy.

I don't mean to say that it makes no difference whatsoever who we elect as president. It does make a difference. Just maybe not anywhere near as much difference as we are led to believe. And just that the difference it makes has less to do with the candidates themselves, and more to do with the specific technical experts they call upon to guide them.

2. Trump is a celebrity candidate. In referring to Trump as a pseudo-candidate, I have been following media ecology scholar Daniel Boorstin's lead. Boorstin coined the term pseudo-event to refer to artificially manufactured events designed simply to be reported by the mass media, publicity stunts, interviews, press conferences, press releases, news leaks, etc. And in a groundbreaking discussion of heroes and celebrities, he referred to the celebrity as a human pseudo-event.

It follows that Trump is a celebrity, and is certainly not the first to capitalize on star power in the pursuit of political office, the most obvious example being Reagan. And it is perhaps not surprising, given the prominence of the entertainment industry in California, that that state would give us Reagan and more recently Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor, but how to explain Minnesota where former professional wrestler and movie actor Jesse Ventura served a term as governor, and comedian Al Franken is currently serving his second term as United States Senator? Except to understand that celebrity politics is a national, indeed an international phenomenon.

Much has been made of the fact that Trump has been host of the reality television program The Apprentice for over a decade, and its variation (quite fitting in this context) known as The Celebrity Apprentice. His famous last words to contestants, "you're fired!" is taken as evidence of his leadership ability, the efficiency of the executive, unconstrained by sentimentality, or even humanity.

But on the subject of celebrity, it is worth noting that, while he has enjoyed considerable success in business, as a real estate developer, Trump is a human pseudo-event in the sense that he is not the most successful executive or entrepreneur in this area, not at all. Long before he was tapped to host a TV series, going back to the 80s and the Reagan years, he was a master at self-promotion, and so gained much higher visibility than many others whose records of achievement in business, in real estate, in hotels and casinos, in any of the areas he was involved in, far exceeded his own. He is the product of publicity, not profits.

And with the barriers that once existed between sectors of society dissolving on account of the electronic media, where everything is just an image, a performance, and a chunk of data, Trump was able to move between worlds, from private enterprise to the world of celebrity, and so to television entertainment, and from there into politics. Just another example of what Neil Postman referred to as amusing ourselves to death. A process that has exploded in the decades that followed Postman's publication, which I address in my own work.


3. Trump means business. Trump is hardly the first individual to run for president based on his experience in the private sector, as a corporate executive, rather than as a
politician. Back in May, Carly Fiorina made it official that she was seeking the Republican nomination, her background being a former executive at AT&T and Lucent, and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, before being forced to resign.

In 2012, Herman Cain was one of the Republican candidates, running on his experience as a Vice-President at Pillsbury, an executive at Burger King, and CEO of Godfather's Pizza. Mitt Romney won the nomination, and while he served one term as governor of Massachusetts, he also
emphasized his experience as an executive and CEO of Bain & Co. management consultants and the Bain Capital private equity investment firm.

 Going back a little further, in 1992 Ross Perot ran as an independent candidate, as a billionaire entrepreneur with long experience in the tech sector, and gained enough support in the polls to be included in the televised debates along with
incumbent Republican president George H. W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. He drew almost 19% of the popular vote in the general election, much of which might have otherwise gone to Bush, which insured Clinton's victory. Perot ran again in 1996 under the banner of the Reform Party, which he founded, but only drew 8% of the popular vote that time, still a very significant showing.

From all this, you might conclude that business-based candidates are not serious contenders for the presidency, and that does seem to be the case, sort of. But note that our previous two-term president, George W. Bush. while  campaigning based on his service as Governor of Texas, also included quite a bit of private sector experience on his resume, working in the oil industry, both as an executive and
an entrepreneur, and as managing general partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team for five years. Moreover, he was the first president of the United States to hold an MBA degree (from the Harvard Business School). Opinions on his actual business acumen and how well it served him as a political leader vary considerably, as you might imagine.

4. Trump is a leader. Trump's rationale for why he is qualified to be president, a rationale shared by all who run on their experience in business rather than politics, is that politicians are often not efficient administrators, and that the private sector is a better training ground for leadership than the public sector—note, in this regard, that for a long time, it was military service that was seen as the best preparation for civic leadership, but the aftermath of the Vietnam War put an end to that, and consider the despicable treatment of John Kerry in 2004 (running against George W. Bush who evaded serving in Vietnam by enlisting in the Texas National Guard, and through family connections avoided a dishonorable discharge after refusing to take a required medical examination, presumably due to drug use), not to mention the recent conflict between Trump and John McCain over McCain's experience as a POW and status as a war hero.

There is an analogy at work here, that government is an organization like any other organization, and therefore the skills and talents needed to run one organization can be transferred to another. Following this logic, the CEO of a soda company can become the CEO of a computer company (a move that brought Apple to the brink of bankruptcy in the 80s), that it's all about technique, method, not material. And even if this would be true for the private sector, does it translate to the public sector. Is the simile that government is like a business, or worse yet the metaphor that government is a business, put in a milder way that it ought to be run like a business, valid?

Calvin Coolidge is often misquoted as saying, "the business of America is business," the actual quote being, "the chief business of the American people is business," but either way, he did not say that the American government is a business or should be one. Does government manufacture a product? Does government sell products or services to consumers? Are the people customers of the government, and consumers of its products and services? Is the government itself something to be bought and sold? Does the government have an owner or owners? Are there shareholders, with some having more than others, maybe even some being majority stockholders? Knowing the kinds of answers that many would give to these questions, it might make sense to substitute "should" for "does" because my point is not to argue about the reality of socioeconomic and political inequality, but rather about how we think about the concept of government.

The argument for approaching government as if it were a business, and the presidency as if it were being the CEO of a corporation, is that the private sector is more efficient than the public, because any given business operates within an external environment of free enterprise, and therefore faces Darwinian pressures of competition, survival of the fittest and all that, along with the financial pressure to maximize profits for shareholders, which requires businesses to operate in as lean and mean a manner as possible. Now, holding aside the fact that businesses often are successful in squelching competition, and are not always so wonderfully efficient, the argument itself is based on the technical criteria of efficiency, which media ecology scholars such as Ellul and Postman have argued is inhuman, anti-human, hostile to any human value. 


Is government all about efficiency? Maybe, if we're talking about fascism, Nazism, totalitarianism. Not if we're talking about citizens participating in democratic self-governance. Not if we're talking about preserving human rights, human dignity, and nurturing human potential. Not if we're talking about doing what is right and providing for what is good, for individuals and groups, communities and the people as a whole. Not even if we're talking about what Trump called the art of the deal, the ability to negotiate with individuals who do not share the same views or goals, and to be diplomatic. The old-fashioned words, statesman and statesmanship, and apologies for the sexist language, refer to qualities entirely different from that of a sharp business executive.

We use the same word, leader, to refer to heads of state and heads of corporations, and the officers who devise battle plans and the officers who actually lead soldiers into battle, and community organizers, and clergy, and school administrators, and the list goes on and on. And the case can be made for studying leadership as a general concept, but ultimately, there are many different types of leaders for many different types of situations, and what makes for a good leader is always dependent on the context. Different contexts are differences that make a difference. They are differences that can make all the difference in the world.

No comments: