Thursday, November 3, 2016

Trump By Design

So, with Election Day almost upon us, I figure I better post this now, before it's too late. And with Halloween just past us, I apologize if this is a bit scary to consider. 

But this past winter I was asked to write a guest blog post for Visible Works Design, a company run by my old friend from Hillcrest High School, Peter Darnell, and to write something about politics, since that was the hot topic at that time. I should add that this wasn't the first time I wrote a piece for them, but more on that another day. 

So this time around, I wrote a short essay called Trump By Design, which was posted over there on March 23rd (you can check it out there by clicking on the link). And maybe it was coincidence, but then again, I think not, that their site was hacked shortly after the post went up. There was just some weird and obscene verbiage added onto the post, I'm not sure what exactly because it was fixed before I knew it happened. So maybe the hacker didn't like my post, but if so, I'm not sure if it was because I was critical of Trump, or because I said I think he's going to win.

Be that as it may, I will point out that I wrote this at a time when it looked like Trump was not going to secure the Republican nomination. All the pundits and broadcast journalists were saying there was a ceiling to his support and that he would never be able to get to the needed totals to be nominated on the first ballot, which was the only way he could win. These were the same folks who laughed at this candidacy summer before last, and refused to take him seriously all last fall.

Well, I guess the joke's on them, isn't it? And us too, unfortunately.

I mean, even if he loses on Tuesday, he will have come awfully close, and the only thing that stopped him was some very idiosyncratic stuff that no one could have predicted, that X-factor. And that's if he loses.

There has been much water under the bridge since I wrote this, but I won't alter or adjust the original post, and you can be the judge of how good my assessment of the situation was, and is.

Trump By Design 

Maybe it was foolish on my part, but I made a bet with a colleague that Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination and defeat Hillary Clinton, becoming our next president. My one stipulation was that if, somehow, Bernie Sanders becomes the Democratic candidate, the bet would be off. And I'll admit that the problem with my bet is the possibility of some X-factor intervening, like a third party run on the conservative side, for example.

But holding aside some unusual or unforeseen occurrence, I feel pretty confident in this prediction. And maybe I'm wrong. Believe me, I hope I'm wrong. But I do think it's been pretty apparent that most of the pundits and politicians have been in complete denial about Trump's candidacy, and incapable of assessing his chances in an objective manner. And so, reports of his political death have been repeatedly and frequently exaggerated. It's practically a ritual by now.

But what is the secret of Trump's popularity? Some say it's his political stance, which represents populism and a new strain of American nationalism, but his critics argue that he has no real policies; others say it's the state of the electorate, that many voters are angry and feel betrayed. I don't want to discount these factors, but they don't actually answer the question of, Why Trump? Why not, say Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, or Rand Paul for that matter? Or, on the Democratic side, why hasn't Bernie Sanders taken the lead over Clinton?

The answer lies in the nature of the media we use for the purposes of political communication, the media through which election campaigns are conducted. When it comes to campaigning via the electronic media, factors that used to matter when print was the dominant medium of communication, and campaigns were conducted by way of words, both spoken and written, no longer carry the same weight. All too often, these factors, factors such as ideas, policies, ideologies, simply put, the content of communication, what might otherwise be referred to as the substance of our messages, make little or no difference in election outcomes, at least outside of local arenas.

Instead what counts would be style, tone, appearance, personality, image. We are in the era of image politics, a point stressed back in 1985 by Neil Postman in his classic study, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. It's an argument I followed up on more recently in my book, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited. In our electronic media environment, candidates live by the image, and they die by the image.

It's no secret that Trump has a certain genius for image-making, that is, for marketing and public relations. The Trump brand first became well known during the 1980s, the decade in which Ronald Reagan, former star of movies, radio, and TV, was elected to two terms as president. During the 80s, automobile executive Lee Iacocca made the ability to communicate effectively on television part of the formula for leadership in the business sector, as he saved Chrysler from bankruptcy; there even was talk of Iacocca, who had no experience in politics, as a potential presidential candidate, although nothing ever came of it.

As for Trump, he was far from being the nation's wealthiest or most successful entrepreneur or business executive, or even real estate developer, but his fame at that time had already eclipsed his contemporaries. He made himself into a brand name, and never faded into obscurity, in contrast to another self-promoting rival from the casino industry, Steve Wynn. He was able to maintain a relatively positive image, unlike real estate rival Leona Helmsley, who was reviled by the public, became known as the Queen of Mean, and was ultimately convicted of income tax evasion. He was able to attain high visibility by becoming a television personality, much like Martha Stewart. Stewart, while not despised in the manner of Helmsley, faded from public view after being convicted of insider trading.

Of course, Trump is much more than a real estate developer and business executive. He is a media professional, and television star, having hosted 14 seasons of The Apprentice between 2004 and 2015 (half of which were in the format of The Celebrity Apprentice). Interestingly, one season of a spinoff featuring Martha Stewart aired in 2005. Significantly, with Trump out of the picture due to his presidential run, the next season of the series, scheduled to run later this year, will be hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like Reagan, Schwarzenegger is a movie star who became the governor of California (and would have been a viable presidential candidate were he not a naturalized citizen). It is not so well known that the Arnold, like the Donald, is also successful in the business of business, but what the program banks on is not simply star power, but the ability to convey an image of leadership.

Schwarzenegger as a stand-in for Trump certainly will help to reinforce Trump's leadership image, but also recall that Trump's role in The Apprentice was to give assignments to the contestants, and then evaluate their performance. His signature line in the series, you're fired!, established him as the person in charge, an individual capable of making firm and often difficult decisions. He played a similar role in an obscure and short-lived spinoff, Donald J. Trump Presents the Ultimate Merger, a dating program. The important point here is that his experience on television reinforced the image he promoted of himself as a successful business executive, and built on that foundation an even more powerful image of himself as a powerful and effective leader. Celebrity is helpful in political campaigns, but ultimately it is not visibility alone, but conveying the right kind of image, and being able to engage in image management, that wins and loses elections.

While Trump's opponents have argued that running for president is not the same thing as starring on a reality television series, the simple truth is that the race for the White House is, in fact, a form of reality TV, televised debates for example having more in common with quiz and game shows than with actual, traditional debates. And this plays to Trump's strengths as a professional on-camera media personality. He knows how to play to the camera, how to speak to the microphone, and how to appeal to the viewers at home. He understands that television is all about attracting audiences, and he knows how to get their attention, how to provide the entertaining content that they're looking for, the kind of content that works well with the inherent bias of television as a medium. As he is not shy about pointing out, he singlehandedly has vastly expanded the viewership of televised debates and news programs that he's appeared on.

Trump is a performer, and so far he has out-performed his Republican opponents on the television screen and in the ballot box alike. Television, as a visual medium, also favors attractive individuals, and whether or not you agree with Trump when he says he's good looking, I think that objectively we can at least say that he's not unattractive. Although he has been subject to some mockery over his hairstyle, and the orange tint of his skin, it is also true that he is tall, and historically the taller candidates tend to win, a fact that does not bode well for Marco Rubio's future chances. Moreover, Trump's features are relatively soft and not distinct, in contrast to Ted Cruz's sharp features. In Marshall McLuhan's terms, he has a low definition appearance, one that is consistent with television being a cool medium.

McLuhan also suggested that what we call charisma amounts to looking a lot like everyone else. As hard as it may be to accept, visually, Trump is actually easy for many Americans to identify with, to see themselves in, to serve as a screen to project themselves onto. His face is very much a face in the crowd (the name of a prescient film on the power of television-based celebrity). And sure, he's rich, but he acts the way most Americans would act if they won the lottery. His nouveau riche manner is instantly relatable, and that has much to do with the early and powerful clash he had with Jeb Bush, the Bush family being old money, elitists types. That's why George H. W. Bush was a one-term president after riding Reagan's coattails to the White House. George W. Bush avoided his father's fate by putting on a Texan persona, Texans being the opposite of New England snobbish types. Jeb didn't have that advantage, and didn't know what hit him as Trump took him apart rather quickly.

Experts who focus on content find much to criticize in Trump's discourse, just as they did with George W. Bush, but if you focus on tone and style, Trump talk exudes unwavering confidence and strength, with a fair amount of humor, and calm. As much as he has been increasingly associated with voter anger, violent crowd behavior, and accusations of bigotry, he rarely looses his cool, keeping his temper even while he is quick with a comeback or put down. By way of contrast, John McCain's image as angry or irritable did not serve him well, especially as the polls showed him losing ground to Obama following the financial downturn in the fall of 2008. As someone who promotes himself as a master at making deals, Trump knows how to make a sale, and knows that the key to selling things is first and foremost to sell yourself.

Trump is a made-for-television candidate, but let’s not overlook his use of other media. Obama demonstrated the power of social media in 2008, and Trump has proven to be quite adept at using Twitter, understanding that what counts is how often you tweet, how fast you get your tweets out there, how well you can get across a point in no more than 140 characters, and once again, how entertaining your messages can be. Again, critics call him out for misspelling, and in doing so they break one of the unspoken taboos of online messaging. Trump also knows quite well the power of retweets, which not only flatter the person retweeted and allow for engagement with and direct encouragement of his followers, but also allows him to send messages that he doesn't have to take responsibility for, as they are not his own. This is a lesson learned from journalists, who maintain their image of objectivity and factuality by using quotes from others, rather than making their own statements. If I say the moon is made of green cheese, and the news media quote me saying so, then what they have printed is true, it is true that I said that the moon is made of green cheese, and it doesn't matter that the content of my statement is actually false.

If Trump's televisual image is cool in McLuhan's terms, his use of this type of social media is what McLuhan called hot, that is, intense and provocative, in keeping with the hotter nature of text. The two complement each other, heating things up via social media, cooling them down via television, and the telephone, which he also uses quite effectively when he calls in to TV news programs.

So far, he has been able to convey a sense of genuine authenticity through his direct, seemingly off the cuff comments, which come across as not filtered through the typical kind of diplomacy and political double talk of other candidates, neither politically correct nor drawing on weasel words to avoid making clear and direct statements. McLuhan observed back in the early days of television that the electronic medium favors real life, and reality TV is just the latest manifestation of this bias, one that is shared by social media. It is worth recalling that reality programming is actually created by a host of unseen production people, running cameras, lighting, microphones, interviewing, etc., and then edited to create a narrative, and that social media can also be used in a deliberate and planned manner to create a semblance of spontaneity.

Trump makes almost all of his opponents appear phony by way of contrast. This will certainly be the case if and when he goes up against Clinton; Sanders, whose messages have been remarkably consistent, would give him more trouble on this score, as he also has conveyed a strong sense of authenticity. Trump differs, though, in being quite inconsistent, but his bouncing from topic to topic, from hot text to cool video, and even from one position to another, has managed to keep his opponents, and the journalists covering him, very much off balance, while keeping his audience entertained, and his followers stimulated and energized.

Reagan was known as the Teflon President, because no matter how many times he said things that turned out to be false, or otherwise displayed his ignorance on his topic or misspoke in some way, nothing would stick to him, that is, nothing affected his popularity. Trump is very much reminiscent of Reagan, and has that same Teflon quality about him. Not slick, just non-stick. Indeed, much of the negative response to Trump strongly mirrors the criticisms of Reagan, which is why I believe Trump will wind up in the White House as well. As for the criticisms of Trump's public speaking, characterized by a kind of stream of consciousness nonlinearity, they pale in comparison to what was said about George W. Bush's lack of fluency and malapropisms, what became known as his Bushisms. I would also note that W., our first MBA president, also tooted his business background. Trump's similarities to our last two two-term Republican presidents lead to me to think that Trump has much better than even odds for being elected for one term, at least.

Trump will be our first designer president, our first brand name Commander-in-Chief. Whether he could defeat a Democratic opponent like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama is hard to say, but Hillary Clinton is another story. Simply put, she does not come across all that well on television, and whatever social media competency her staff enjoys is not enough to compensate. Her strong negatives will to a large extent cancel out those of Trump. We would do well to remember how Gore lost the presidency in 2000. And sure, he won the popular vote, but with the economy booming under Bill Clinton, and the country safe and secure in the period between the end of the Cold War and the new reality that would emerge after 9/11, Gore should have won in a landslide, rather than make it so close that his opponent could claim victory by the margin of a handful of hanging chads. Gore lost because his image, his appearance and personality, did not work well as content for the electronic media. Hillary Clinton has a similar kind of awkward quality to her, and and having tied herself so closely to President Obama, will have a harder time overcoming her inherent limitations, and will be especially vulnerable should anything go wrong domestically, especially with the economy, or in regards to our foreign affairs. Also having a public identity intimately tied to her husband is a two-edged sword.

Win or lose, the race for the Republican nomination has turned into a referendum on Trump. Assuming he gets the nod, the general election will be as well. The presidency will be his to win or lose. As it stands right now, I think the odds are in his favor. And maybe I'm wrong. And there certainly are many other factors that can intervene between now and November. But if you understand the contemporary American media environment, you have to take Trump very, very seriously. And you have to understand that every aspect of American society has been and continues to be radically mutated by our new modes of communication.

1 comment:

Peter Darnell said...

Yes Lance you were right. The illusion created by TV and Trump's mastery of it is how he has gotten this far. But let's also hope that what you told me the other day us true also." Live by TV, due by TV." There is still time fir him to say something stupid, and God willing,he will. my money is on Hillary- Peter Darnell